[Photo courtesy of The Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia]

A young female administrator I was mentoring asked me to describe executive presence and how she might practice it for an upcoming presentation. I thought I would share my response here, with the hope that it provides concrete tips for establishing yourself as a confident, effective leader.

What You Wear

Presence is a state of mind communicated through the body. Certainly there is a component of executive presence that relates to what you wear. Do you feel put together? Are you dressed appropriately for the occasion? A good rule of thumb is that it is better to be overdressed than underdressed, and simplicity is better than overstated or ‘loud’ clothes. Like it or not, among executives, first impressions are very important.

How You Feel

Clothing and being outwardly assembled will help with first impressions, but confidence in yourself will take you through the entire encounter, whether it is an important meeting, presentation, or interview. “Owning” who you are and the position you hold is more important than any wardrobe choice. Stand tall. Get the imposter feeling out of your head and take charge of your presence. Prepare well so that you are comfortable with what you are about to do and say.

The Way You Speak

Executive presence is communicated to others through tone of voice and posture. Try to find a balance between professional formality and a degree of relaxed comfort. I know that may sound difficult, but there are some discrete ways of carrying yourself that can help:

  • sit up straight;
  • talk with your head up;
  • project your voice;
  • and don’t be afraid to interrupt if it seems appropriate to the room – you’re adding to the conversation.

Executive presence is about your attitude of confidence, ownership and belonging as well as doing what you need to do to look the part.

Your Elevator Speech

Executive presence is not just a feeling you hold to yourself; it is also about taking certain actions to establish your credibility with others. One way to do this is to create, practice and use an Elevator Speech to introduce yourself effectively. It should be brief but assertive of your accomplishments – no self-deprecation! Include your name, current title, primary responsibility, and something impactful about your work or your organization. My elevator speech goes like this:

I’m Madeline Bell. I’m the CEO of the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, where I manage a 2.5 billion dollar corporation with over 13,000 employees. We’re a globally recognized healthcare provider and were recently named the #1 children’s hospital in the country.

It might sound like bragging to you, but to make a lasting first impression with a busy executive in just a few seconds, it is absolutely essential to include memorable, impressive details about yourself.

Executive Presence in Action


When giving a presentation, pretend that you are telling a story to a good friend outside of work. Keep your arms down by your sides. Find two or three people in different areas of the room (one on the right, one on the left and one in the back, for example) and just make eye contact with them. This is a simple way to appear relaxed and like you are talking to the entire group. Remember to take a deep breath and pause before you start speaking, and watch your speed! Most people tend to talk too fast.


The first time I attended the CEO Council for Growth meeting, I went into the room resolved to speak. If I didn’t speak at the first meeting, I knew it would be that much harder for me to assert myself in future meetings. I wanted to set the tone with the rest of my colleagues that, despite being one of very few women in the room, I was comfortable being there and I knew the value of my voice and perspective. I paid close attention to my body language (some of which felt unnatural for me, frankly), and I sat towards the front of the table.

When you join a regular meeting, don’t wait until the sixth gathering to make yourself heard to the group. It is so much more difficult to alter the group’s dynamic to include your voice and presence once it has been established without you. Remember: you belong there.

Here are a couple resources about executive presence which I’ve found helpful and interesting along the way: