How to Command a Room

Knowing how to captivate an audience is an essential skill—and one that can be learned. Whether you're directing volunteers, corralling family members or angling for the corner office, here's how to be the person worth listening to

by Jennifer Braunschweiger and Laura Sinberg
command a room
Photograph: Illustrated by Christopher Silas Neal

Maybe you have a friend who can seamlessly mobilize a group to plan a vacation, or a neighbor who beat out a number of other candidates to become PTA president. What makes one person able to create a consensus while another, equally intelligent, is just one more opinion? It’s leadership, the ability to win over and motivate a group of people with your voice and presence. And it’s as important in life as it is in business.

Research has shown that what makes someone an effective leader is a combination of gravitas, communication skills and appearance. “Projecting gravitas is about poise, grace under fire, the ability to be unwavering,” says Sylvia Ann Hewlett, CEO of the Center for Talent Innovation, “to be super decisive and show teeth without alienating people.” With the right guidance, almost anyone can develop the necessary skills. But, disturbingly, women often are not getting enough help along the way.

The reason for that is twofold, says Hewlett. First, women simply aren’t perceived as leaders, so no one bothers to train them. In the business world, for example, women still occupy fewer than 15 percent of executive-officer positions. “People think leaders should look like Mitt Romney,” says Hewlett. “Ninety-six percent of leaders are still white males. There’s a lot of subliminal bias.”

Also, men often hesitate to give women feedback when they fall short. “With a guy you can say, ‘You messed up,’ ” says Hewlett. “That goes on all the time—very buddy-buddy.” But men don’t tend to speak that frankly to women, she says, describing a CEO who explained why he didn’t promote the most able woman at his large company. “He said, ‘You know, Laura is fantastic and has the best record, but she makes too many lists. She comes in to brief me every Friday with this long checklist, as if she isn’t able to command her priorities well enough to extemporize. I can’t put her in front of the board or showcase her as a leader.’ ” Hewlett asked the CEO if he had communicated any of this to the woman, whom Hewlett knew to be extremely talented. “He said, ‘No, of course not. She would be so embarrassed; I didn’t want to deal with that.’ Translation: In a politically correct environment, he was afraid of getting sued.”

RELATED: Is Lack of Executive Presence Holding You Back?

Laura’s checklists stand for something important: She lacked the executive presence that would get her to the next level. “A lot of life involves selling ideas, selling a vision,” says Hewlett. “The core of that is to be able to be credible and compelling in three minutes.” There is no single best way to project leadership. But there are skills you can improve on. Regardless of your forum, here’s the feedback you need:

“Shifting to an ‘owner’s mind-set’ is key to commanding a room,” says Amy Jen Su, a cofounder of the executive coaching firm Isis Associates. “Women can get stuck on things like everyone at the table being more senior than they are.”

Trade up your self-image: “Swap the way you see yourself from doer or worker bee to thought leader, pioneer, ambassador,” says Jen Su, who tells the story of a client who was up for vice president at a big firm. The woman’s boss was worried that even though she had the whole tool kit—the right suit, the right skills—something about her presence still seemed small. “When we dug into it, we realized she saw herself as someone more junior. Her mind hadn’t caught up with her position,” Jen Su says. “We had her tell us her autobiography so she could hear for herself how much value she brought to the company.”

First published in the March 2014 issue

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