At SQL Saturday Nashville, I didn’t do a good job explaining the concept of presence. This is in reference to the Women in Technology presentation at lunch. Part of the discussion was around how height can influence being noticed. I agree that it does play a huge role. At 5’7″, I know that it’s easy to “fly under the radar.” However, I also know that folks are able to overcome that physical trait.
I was trying to explain how my mom, who is 4’8″ on a good day, and her sister (even shorter), have a presence that when they mean business, they command immediate respect. Not only are they very short by our American standards, but they are both very obviously Japanese. And, of course, they are female. So they both fit that 3 strikes against when it comes to being noticed, respected, and listened to. Yet I’ve seen both in the midst of a crowd of complete strangers and immediately command the group. They have presence.
If you think about it, you’ve likely come across folks who seem to be able to command the room, even a room where no one knows them. They come in and it’s as if everyone immediately takes notice. When I was at The Citadel and was part of the training cadre, I had to have that sort of presence from the moment matriculation began for the freshmen. It’s not natural for me but due to lessons I learned from my freshman and sophomore years at The Citadel, I was able to step into that role as a junior.
As a result, I know from experience that people can develop their presence. Some seem to come by presence naturally. For instance, my teen daughter, who is still under 5′, is someone who hasn’t needed much training. She takes after my mom, not me. She DMs Dungeons and Dragons regularly and most of the time there are only adults at her table. There’s no question who has command, like this picture from a convention where she was DMing (the one reaching over the screen).
Her brothers, who are both at or about 6′ and in college, don’t naturally and instinctively command the same presence. They have to think about doing so. My oldest son, who is the tallest and most physically imposing member of our immediate family, is more often than not overlooked or missed if he isn’t thinking about his presence. He has to rely on lessons learned from martial arts, The Citadel, and military training to do so. When he consciously does, he can command a room, as he has had some great, great teachers. However, he has to expend intentional effort to do so. His brother, who has had martial arts training as well, has to do the same thing.
You don’t have to go into the military to learn how to have presence. I’ve cited my sons and lessons learned from the martial arts. Solid martial arts instructors and schools do teach presence. After all, as you progress towards black belt, you will likely be given increased responsibility in teaching less experienced students. Both of my sons have earned black belts and are now expected to be able to teach in their respective schools. That requires presence.
If martial arts aren’t your thing, there are also organizations like Toastmasters who work on the same concept and provide training to help you develop presence and the appearance of comfort in a public setting. I say appearance because if you’re like me, a solid introvert, there’s always discomfort. However, those organizations’ training help you deal with that discomfort, increase your ability to reach others, and be accessible. You may have to consciously focus on doing so, but it’s possible.
Now, will there still be times when you’ll be dismissed or ignored? Absolutely. There’s plenty of folks with strong, illogical bias against you, whether it’s the fact you’re short, you’re female, you’re obviously of foreign descent, or something else. There are also people who can’t see past themselves. And then there are folks who are dealing with life situations that make them less attuned to what’s going on around them. The best parable I have heard is the guy who gets on the subway with his small kids and the young ones begin terrorizing the car but the man doesn’t intervene. Finally, one person intercedes and asks the man if he can do something about his children. Then the punchline hits: he has come from the hospital where his wife has just passed away from cancer and none of them are dealing with it well.
Those specific and unusual cases aside, if we work on developing our presence, for a large number of people, we can overcome factors that would normally exclude us from notice or push us out of the conversation. It’s definitely a soft skill to develop, regardless of your industry or profession.