How to have virtual presence as a leader

Being perceived as a leader is the essence of leadership presence. While most of my coaching focuses on helping leaders enhance their presence in face-to-face encounters, I also realize that a different set of skills is required for projecting leadership presence when communicating virtually.

Communication mediums run a spectrum from “lean” to “rich.” A lean medium transmits less information than a rich medium. If you are emailing, texting or typing in a chat window (lean mediums), there is nothing that gives added clues to the meaning of what you write. A communication channel becomes richer as you add human elements.

Telephone calls and teleconferences give listeners access to vocal clues. Videoconferencing allows participants to view facial expressions and hand gestures. Whether in an email, over the telephone, or on a video conference, you can project leadership presence.


A recent report estimated that the average business person gets over 100 emails a day. Here are five ways to break through the clutter:

1. Start with a specific subject line

Using a generic: subject line like: “What do you think?” or “Checking in” has much less impact than a specific: “Need suggestions for the meeting agenda by end of the day.”

2. Make your message clear and concise

Brevity makes a positive impact. People are more likely to read short, concise emails than long, rambling ones, so make sure that your emails are as short as possible and try adding details in bullet points.

3. Proofread your message

Before you hit “send,” take a moment to review your email for spelling, grammar, and punctuation mistakes. Your email messages are as much a part of your professional image as your body language. Don’t diminish your leadership presence by sending out a message that contains typos.

4. Wait 24 hours when you’re upset

It’s never a good idea to send an email when you’re angry or in the throes of any strong negative emotion – although we’ve all done this. If you compose an email in anger (or frustration or disappointment), wait a day before sending it. Then read it over and see if it’s reflective of how you want to be perceived. (Does it enhance or deplete your leadership presence?) In almost all cases, you’ll either re-write or delete the original.

5. Don’t wait to say “thank you”

Another place where timing matters is whenever you send a “thank you” email. But in this case, the sooner, the better. Don’t wait days or weeks to express your appreciation. Do it right after the meeting — and you’ll greatly increase the impact of your positive comment.

Telephone calls

On a telephone call it’s all in your voice. The words you choose, your speaking pace, volume, tone, inflection, pauses – all communicate their own messages. When you want to sound like a leader . . . here are my top four tips:

1. Lower your vocal pitch

The quality of your voice can be a deciding factor in how you are perceived. Speakers with higher-pitched voices are judged to be less empathic, less powerful and more nervous than speakers with lower-pitched voices.

One easy technique to use before joining the conference call involves putting your lips together while saying “Um hum, um hum, um hum.” Doing so relaxes your voice into its optimal lower pitch.

2. Stay focused

You may think you are fooling people when you check your messages or file your fingernails during a teleconference, but you are not. People can hear the “disconnect” in your voice and it reduces your leadership presence.

3. Sit up and smile

Sitting up, squaring your shoulders, and keeping your head straight gives you vocal energy – and smiling puts warmth in your voice.

4. Build virtual trust

  • Use inclusive language – “we,” “us”, “together” – as much as possible.
  • Take a few minutes for “small talk” at the beginning of the call. The more you and your caller get to know one another on a personal level, the more likely you are to trust each other.
  • Instead of just reacting to what someone says, acknowledge her first by saying “That’s an interesting point you just made …”, or “What you said reminds me of …” or “Building on your idea about … ”

Video conferences

In video meetings, you add richer communication cues by offering a partial view (usually from your chest to the top of your head). And what people see is often more impactful than anything you say. Here are for things to remember when on camera:

1. Look like a leader

It takes less than seven seconds for people to make judgments about your confidence, competence, professional status, and warmth. While a face-to-face meeting gives you added opportunities to create a positive impression (the way you enter the meeting room, shake hands, and so on), on the screen, it’s all about your visual presence. So be sure your grooming and wardrobe send the right message.

2. Start off with the right attitude

Regardless of how tiring or frustrating your day may have been, before you go on camera pull your shoulders back, hold your head high, take a deep breath, and smile. Think about showing up as your “best self” – exuding ease, confidence and warmth.

3, Make eye contact

Eye contact is hugely important in nonverbal communication. If a speaker actively seeks out eye contact, she is judged to be more believable, confident and competent. In person this involves looking directly in someone’s eyes. In a video meeting, you have to maintain eye contact by looking into the camera when you talk and at the screen when others are speaking. It’s a good idea to lower the monitor camera a little so that you don’t have to tilt your head back to gaze up at it. (And if you use notes, attach them at camera-eye level.)

4. Watch your gestures

If you use open gestures, you’ll be perceived more positively. But be aware that too much hand movement can look jerky on screen – so slow your gestures down for the best effect. Gestures that are so large that your hands go out of view are useless, so keep your hands in the frame.

Remember, too, that regardless of how comfortable you may be crossing your arms, this gesture is almost always perceived as a sign of resistance. And, since the human brain pays more attention to negative messages than it does to positive ones, people are unconsciously on the alert for signs that something is wrong.

One final thought: As important and pervasive as virtual communication is, when it comes to projecting leadership presence, nothing beats the impact you can make in person. Massari is a Vice President at Ceasars Entertainment. His advice: “If it’s not that important, send an email. If it’s important but not mission critical, pick up the phone. If it’s critically important to the success of your organization, go see someone.”

Carol Kinsey Goman, Ph.D. is an international keynote speaker and leadership presence coach.