Activating The Art Of Leadership Presence With Hilary Blair

by | Mar 21, 2024 | Podcasts

Speakers Who Get Results | Hilary Blair | Leadership Presence


Were you in the “too much” club as a young person? Hilary Blair shows us how to embrace your power. Join this episode to learn how you can activate the art of leadership presence, so you can show up to effectively convey your message and share your passion. Hilary is a keynote speaker, champion of human connection, and the CEO of ARTiculate: Real&Clear. She brings her expertise to the table to help us in areas such as our speaking voice, breath, and posture. Plus, Hilary dives deep into the challenges of being called “too much,” and the way we betray ourselves by holding back. Tune in and learn how to show up with your full self.

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Activating The Art Of Leadership Presence With Hilary Blair

This is the show where we talk about leadership, presentation skills, communication challenges, and so much more. Before I get to my wonderful guest, I’d like to invite you to see where your presentation skills are by taking our free four-minute quiz at That’s where you can see where your presentation skills are helping you and where perhaps a little bit of support could help you get the results you need and the recognition that you deserve. My guest is another presentation skills trainer who comes from a slightly different background, Hilary Blair. We had a good time talking shop a little bit about how to make people show up as great leaders.

Hilary Blair is a keynote speaker, champion of human connection, and the CEO of ARTiculate: Real&Clear. She’s impassioned by moving beyond habits and learned behaviors to uncover what’s unique and authentic in individuals and groups. She’s a presentation skills and a speaking voice expert, Hllary’s a highly regarded coach and facilitator working extensively across the globe with a variety of businesses, including Maersk shipping, Liberty Global, Slalom, and the American Civil Liberties Union.

Whether facilitating workshops on professional presence, coaching tough conversations to improve leadership and team connection, or exploring the messiness of communication as a keynote speaker, Hilary’s many years as a teacher combined with her professional stage and film and voiceover career present a unique skillset. She’s certified in conversational intelligence and culture talk and holds a Master of Fine Arts in Acting from the National Theater Conservatory and a Bachelor’s from Yale University. She has a history of playing a tomato plant. Wait until you read that story. Onto the interview with the wonderful Hillary Blair.

Hilary Blair, welcome to the show.

Thank you.

Hilary’s Dream Interview

I’m glad to have you here. I’m always talking to somebody who has turned their art into business. I think a lot about the relationship between art and business. Before I go into my whole list of questions I have for you, let me ask you, who would be your dream interview? If you could interview someone who’s no longer with us, who would it be? What would you ask them and who should be listening?

What came to mind when you said that is this is fantastic. I had Betty White and Harriet Tubman come to mind. How do you like that? Two people not living. They couldn’t be more different. For me, that similarity.

For our international readers, define who Harriet Tubman was.

Underground Railroad in the US, making sure that slaves went safely.

A Black woman who escaped from slavery and then turned around and brought many other Black people out of the slave parts of the US South at that time.

I’m amazed at the bravery. I’m amazed when people think beyond themselves, outside of themselves and step forward and risk everything. There are many people who could be in this category. I think as a child learning history, I was struck by her. That’s why I think she came to mind right away. She was all about others and making sure that they were safely allowed to have lives and move people North. I feel like there’s a full beingness connected to her that has a youthful thing that I was in awe of that. I realized when you asked me, “Who would you want to interview from the past,” jumped in. Betty White is very different and I’m very aware that she spoke out when a lot of other people didn’t.

Betty White, the actor?

Yes. There was a comedic side to her that we saw. As a comedic actor and doing all of this then you realize this whole side of her where she boldly spoke up for many different social justice issues and things going on that needed someone with that public view to speak and share their voice. Sharing your voice can show up in actions and words, in both.

Connecting To Businesspeople As Teacher/Performer

I love that because another thought is when Betty White started speaking up later in life after she was this day, probably as a twenty-year-old actress along with all the other blondes trying to make a living. Good for her, that she made a living and she kept on going. It wasn’t until she was older that she was celebrated and showed that she wasn’t just the dumb blonde, which was the character she often played, but being able to speak up. Often I find at a certain point, as women, we get to the point where we say, “To hell with it. I don’t care anymore. I’m going to say what I think.” We are tired of fitting in. I have a lot of things to ask you about voice, executive presence and leadership, but. I don’t often get other performers that I can interview. I am curious how you got to what you’re doing now from a previous life of being a teacher and a performer.

I was in the land of what we call arts for art’s sake, so teaching other artists for the artist world. It’s important to know that I had the classic artist chip on my shoulder against anything to do with business. Money-grubbing humans. That idea. I was spotted by someone who saw what I didn’t see in the work that I was doing. I was in a children’s play, a great 3-hander, meaning 3 characters, and called Tomato Plant Girl. I was playing Tomato Plant Girl.

I grew from a tiny little plant to a large plant to a tomato, to a giant tomato. The other two characters were a bossy best friend and a little girl. It was about friendship, bullying, and things like that. I was a tomato plant I didn’t have a lot of lines. I had a lot of connection to the other two and relationship building and all of that, not necessarily through words. Some words towards the end as I learned to speak. I was in line after, and I was shaking little hands. I’m leaning down as a giant tomato, shaking hands and this adult body comes in front of me, I can feel them here. I hear this voice and she asks me, “Do you work with business people?” In my head, I’m like, “I am a tomato at the moment.”

Out loud I said, “Some kind of squeaked out in the typical tight voice, not breathing, answer some.” She tucked her business card in my tomato costume and said, “Call me when you’ve worked with more.” At this point, I had been teaching for decades already. I had some business people come through, not many. When I went back to the theater where I was teaching classes and started getting phone calls that were like, “Do you work with business people?” I said, “I do.” For five months I practiced. I learned many things about business people and how to connect what I did as an acting teacher, drama teacher, theater teacher, and as a performer myself to business people.

The first thing is you do not ask a business person to lie down on the floor and breathe, FYI. You don’t start there. Most acting classes start with everyone spread out on the floor, breathing, finding their breath, and grounding themselves. Other than that, many things that worked. She had had a vision of a tomato working with business people. I leaned into that. I believed in that. I found all the connections and called her five months later she invited me to New York.

I auditioned for her program called Count Me In for Women’s Economic Independence program which was Make Mine a Million. The idea was that women were pitching their businesses and then getting awarded if they won they were in cohorts. She saw a tomato and thought I should help women with their story and their pitches. That’s what I did for the next seven years. I crisscrossed the country, coaching women entrepreneurs on their voice, on their stories, on being succinct in their messaging and sharing their passion. That’s where I chipped away at the rock on my shoulder, fell madly in love with business people, and recognized that business people are passionate and driven. They track and measure most artists.

Speakers Who Get Results | Hilary Blair | Leadership Presence

Leadership Presence: I crisscrossed the country coaching women entrepreneurs on their voice, on their stories, on being succinct in their messaging and sharing their passion.


Artists often don’t do that.

For me, what’s good about that woman and what’s cool about her for all of us is she’s the woman who cofounded Take Our Daughters To Workday. She is a visionary. I feel called to all of us, to remind us to be visionaries for each other and see what we can be that we might not be able to see because she saw what I could be and where I’ve gone far before I did. I don’t think I would’ve even ended up there had she not suggested it.

I often say that my career started as a bunny rabbit, but I was five.

I was twenty.

What got me going was applause. I realized that significance is one of the basic human needs. Knowing that you’re making a difference and there’s no drug as addictive as applause to having people love you for that. The fact that my mom said that I was the best buddy rabbit ever to grace the stage of the hillside school, it got me started on a lifelong journey. You have many wonderful things to say about leveraging what you learned as a performer and a teacher for business leaders with leadership presence, especially using the voice. I’d like to know more about that and what you’re doing.

The Speaking Voice

There are many angles where we interfere with ourselves and where we cut ourselves off, where we put up a wall, and where we don’t connect with other people. I have found the speaking voice to be a great self-awareness, litmus test, what’s going on? The key part of that would be breath because the breath is the first thing that our body holds to protect us. Most of the time in leadership positions, we are not in “safer” situations. We are in business meetings. We’re talking to clients. We’re having tough conversations with employees or direct reports and we are in all of these troubling situations and instinctively our body holds in the key place. Even if you look like you’re hanging out okay is the breath. My big thing is we want to get that breath flowing again so the voice can be connected and that we have that relationship happening.

Speakers Who Get Results | Hilary Blair | Leadership Presence

Leadership Presence: The speaking voice is a great self-awareness litmus test of what’s going on. The key part would be breath because it is the first thing that our body holds to protect us most of the time in leadership positions.


We can’t slam ourselves. We create habits to succeed, not sabotage ourselves. Our bodies are holding their breath to keep us safe. We’re not holding our breath to sound funny or not connect or whatever those things are going on. First saying, “Thanks, got it. I’m not in a safe place and I’ve still chosen to be this leader and I have to have this conversation. I have to give this presentation.” I find a lot of mindset adjustments are important on the affirmative side versus slamming ourselves. We’re good at being hard on ourselves, “I’m doing that thing again. That’s happening.” I invite people to say, “Thanks, you’re right.” I’m going to override that, breathe, and be present with this person even though it’s uncomfortable, even though it’s a tricky situation.

When we allow the breath to flow, our voice has a fullness to it that people respond to. When I ask folks, “Think of someone calling you on the phone, if you have a friend who calls and you ask them, how are they? They go, ‘Good, fine. Why?’ Your first question if they’re a good friend is, ‘What’s wrong? What’s going on?’ ‘No, I’m fine. Everything’s good.’” We connect to voices and when we’re on the phone we’ve isolated seeing the visual and all of that. When it’s a close friend, we know instinctively what to ask.

That’s happening in every leadership position and every presentation position. We’re not necessarily paying attention to it. We want to pay attention to it in others and we want to pay attention to it in ourselves. That held breath. That person who’s not sharing, “I’m good. I’m fine,” is all consonants. Consonants tend to carry the intellectual content. Vowels tend to carry emotional content. We need a nice balance of both of them.

If someone said, “I’m good,” then you’re like, “Okay,” because that’s the vowel and consonants together. Leaders and business people tend to default to the consonants, not necessarily because things are bad in their world, but because we have attached professionalism to only sharing facts and not sharing our whole being, recognizing that people respond to a whole being, showing up. We need breath flowing. Our voice rides on the exhale. That’s how we speak, air from our lungs comes from our vocal folds shaped into voice. The minute it gets interfered with at any point it changes the message, changes how much of us is being shared.

Inviting business people to have a presence by showing up with their full voice is risky. It feels super uncomfortable. We invite people to rock their awkwardness because people respond to that. That whole being showing up and there’s more to it. That idea of we hold our breath to protect ourselves and when our breath is flowing, our full voice shows up. Vowel is one of those little things that’s an indicator to us if we’ve gone to the consonants. It’s kind of the police officer. The facts and the facts only man, no other content.

We hold our breath to protect ourselves. When our breath is flowing, our full voice shows up. Click To Tweet

Leadership Presence

With your leadership presence, how does that coordinate with how you stand or sit? We are both sitting for this interview, but how do you show up in the room? A huge part of the work that I do is helping people show up as leaders part of that is how do you show up physically in your body?

I’m perching. You can see that I’m perched and I do invite people to perch. I’m perched on a stool. I have an upright energy. I invite people if they need to be seated to perch. In the office, we have those beautifully ergonomic chairs that are designed for boardrooms. I invite people to come to the front of the chair the back is behind. There’s a space and to sit upright and come forward, not leaning forward. There’s a big difference between leaning in, being forward, and being open.

The leaning in can have that feeling of coming at someone, but simply being forward, open and connected to that being present and being seen is often in the shoulders we don’t even realize we’re closing off. This is all the people I work with. It’s not gender specific. A lot of things people connect to are gender-specific and I have found them to be across gender. They’re interpreted differently by different people, but everyone’s doing them and they send different stories. When we close off slightly, there’s a tiny difference between here and here. When people talk about posture, they’re often thinking here and here.

For the readers, she’s hunching at her shoulders forward and back.

It’s only a tiny bit of a difference in my shoulders from being a tiny bit closed and more open versus being fully open when we talk about bad posture, we go to an extreme version of it with our body closed off and then we go open up. We have people throwing their shoulders back in this odd way. Those two examples for me are where we disconnect with business people because I feel like when we ask them to have good posture, if we’re not clear, they go to that extreme version and then they shut down about it versus inviting the subtle difference of voice, allowing the breath to flow, the subtle difference of being open, sitting forward in your chair and sitting upright versus sitting back and kicking your leg, this kind of thing.

Generally, we think, “I’m doing this so I look relaxed. I’m doing this so I’m inviting you to speak.” Counterintuitively, it doesn’t land that way. This land is more open and we’re inviting the leaders that I work with to reexamine to look at perhaps the counterintuitive way that they’re like, “I didn’t think about that. I thought that would open up. This is more open.” If I want to be seen and want to invite people to be seen, we step forward with that risk and that openness both vocally breath. This helps the breath and body-wise.

If your shoulders are open and you’re standing up straight, then you have better access to a better column of air. Thinking about this, “How do you manage this in our Zoom meetings?” I’m sitting at a desk in front of a green screen. You’re in a studio, which is a great treat. How do you manage that when you only have a box from the shoulder up?

The first thing is to remember that even with a box from the shoulders up, we can feel whether you are upright. Even if you have your camera off or with your voice, we can hear if it’s connected. That story is portrayed in a box, honoring that. We’ve been watching stories in boxes for a long time so we know what does and doesn’t work. We know from watching television shows and movies that there’s a whole story here. We can often even tell whether someone’s hands are in their lap or if they’re on the table in front of them, open and connected.

Sitting forward you have that framing, which they invite that framing, which is either shoulders up. Sometimes you can go, “I’m more in the waist up in this bigger shot. In the tighter shot, I am from the same as you that shoulder area up.” Some people even stand on Zoom because they have more energy. You have to have a different setup, either a standing desk or lots of boxes, and putting your camera up the main thing is making sure that your camera is still eye.

Five cookbooks that seem to be done. For a long time, it was five cookbooks that could get my laptop up to eye level. I now have something that travels with me that’s not quite as heavy. For many years it was five cookbooks.

During the pandemic, I was, “You must have an Amazon box somewhere.”

The “Too Much” Club

I’m curious about the challenges you find. You have mentioned the too much club. Tell us more about that and where you see it, how you notice it, and what to do about it.

Going back for a moment and then the too much standing, I also want us to recognize that standing is physically standing, we’re all differently abled than where we are, and there’s sometimes an assumed energy of what we mean by that. That idea of standing, whatever it is energizes us to connect more to whatever situation we’re in, even if we’re talking in the car because that happens a lot or if we are in a wheelchair, whatever it might be, it’s that energy of being connected. I’ve heard you mention a number of times that energy is the important thing in connecting.

Too much is where it can show up. I have found people, even if what we’ve been talking about already, “Showing up, where are you?” is that sense of too much club, “Thanks. We were just in a webinar. Here we are with some too much coming up.” The idea of the too much club is that if I am inviting you to be open, if Elizabeth is saying to you, “Show up, we want all of you.” There’s part of us that’s like, “Ha ha,” because most of us have been told we’re too much of something and we’re countering it. Most of us have been told often opposing things. Some of us are too quiet. Some of us are too loud. Some of us have been told we are too pushy. Some of us have been told we’re too dismissive, receding, or whatever.

When we’re told we’re too much of something, then we change our behavior and communication in order to not be too much and take care of the other person. That is the key part of this. We are taking care of the other person by trying to change the feedback that we’ve gotten that we’re too much. By trying to change our behavior to not be too much, we betray ourselves, we give up on ourselves and then we get misread.

By trying to change our behavior to not be too much, we betray ourselves and we give up on ourselves. Click To Tweet

What happens is I can see people who are disappearing a bit and I ask them, “Have you been told you’re too loud, too much or too pushy?” I have. I said, “Right.” You’re countering that in order to take care of the audience, the person, that feedback is in your head somewhere. What’s happening is now we see you as this person who’s pulling back and you’re not being fully yourself. There’s a misalignment, which starts to betray trust. If you’re not fully showing up as you, we’re like, “We’re getting a mixed message here. This doesn’t feel quite who this person.”

On that gender thing, women are often misunderstood to be incompetent or not knowing what they’re talking about and all those things. If they try to adjust what they’re doing and not be too much, they’re told not to intimidate people or they think they don’t want to intimidate people. That’s true with men as well. That’s binary, I realize. In the whole continuum of people, that sense of, “We don’t want to intimidate,” studies have shown that it’s that people are intimidated, you don’t intimidate them.

To show up as your full self and create space for them instead of trying to limit yourself invites that person into the full space. I work with leaders. I was working with a guy the other day and I’m like, “I want you to show up with all that.” He’s tall. He’s big, “I want you to hold that space as a tall and big leader and invite people into that,” which is far more his personality as well versus kicking back to give space, “Stay here.”

There’s a bit of a too much that is too much. I was at an event where it was a discussion. One of the participants was a guy who was louder than everybody else and who kept saying, “You’re wrong. If my employees can’t take it, then they leave.” I thought, “I’m not sure I would want to work with that person who’s shouting all the time.” If that’s his real self, where do you find the balance? For me as a listener, I would want him to accommodate me rather than coming off so loud. I interpreted it as dictatorial. That’s the other side of that.

I don’t know this person. My feeling is that he’s been told he’s too much of something and he’s been told he’s too loud or too what. He’s like, “I still need to be heard.” What I see is someone overcompensating for not being heard, not understanding, and be too much. Sometimes I feel like some guys are being told not to be guys in the space too. Too much of them. It’s showing up that way. I was working with a young woman and I was like, “What’s going on?”

She said, “I was told I was a bulldozer.” She chose to go the other direction and gave up being strong then she was too much. She was too timid. She wasn’t there. Her voice was off. She was choosing to go in the other direction. It was too much that direction instead of what I often say is a lot. If this guy is showing up that way, I’m assuming it’s in reaction to not feeling heard, not understanding, and not like, “I got to get them to do what they’re doing.”

It is a type we’ve seen.

I hear you completely and agree with you. He is being too much. He’s being too loud, too pushy and too prescriptive. It is shutting people down. If we go behind that, if I were working with him, I would say, “There’s a lot of too coming up. What have you been told? What or what do you think you’re being told and you, what’s your behavior responding to?” He might be truly a leader who’s bombastic. He might be there.

Strategic Empathy

I thought of it as he runs a construction company and he’s used to shouting in a space without a fit. This was a quiet boardroom with a bunch of people in suits. I always go back to my technique of strategic empathy, which is to put yourself in the shoes of your listeners who you’re presenting to choose a language and a style that they will hear. You don’t want to completely blend, but you also don’t want to scare them or push them back. I was curious about it, I’ve often thought about adapting your style and your language to your listeners. It’s different from what you’re saying about, “Don’t change yourself,” because, “Don’t change yourself,” is not the same. Stand up for who you are and you still need to speak a language they can hear. I think of it in terms of language. If you’re using the same words but it’s a different language, you still have to speak in a manner that they can take in.

Let me clarify because words create worlds. When I hear, “Don’t change yourself,” I’m not feeling that because I feel like too much club is what we do. We do change ourselves. It’s to be aware that we might be countering something, which is where our strength is or our superpower, not change ourselves, but be aware of a reflexive flip switch.

Speakers Who Get Results | Hilary Blair | Leadership Presence

Leadership Presence: Words create worlds.


We need to style shift all the time for our audience. When people say, “I’m not being authentic,” I’m like, “Really? You only have one gear?” As human beings, we have multiple ways of being authentic. When I hear people shouting or being louder, I often check first like, “Do you have a hearing? Is there a hearing issue?” Especially if he’s been in construction, there might be something that he might not realize. He’s that loud. He’s calibrated incorrectly. You are, “I’m totally with you on,” we have to shift for our audience.

We might be coming at it from a slightly different angle or different coaching situations, not even necessarily different styles, but like, “That’s a different question or a coming from a different angle.” I totally hear you on that. He was misreading his audience and misreading his tactic, I would assume. He’s using a tactic that wasn’t working at all and he might have limited tools ironically for a construction guy. I often put the little tool chest right here. I know what you do for sure is you’re giving people more tools. He is limited. I sometimes joke, “Sometimes we seem to have a sfork, and that’s all we have. We’re trying to use this sfork for everything.” For international readers, that’s a spoon and fork together. It’s a spoon with a fork.

Often, they put it because they don’t know what you’re going to get to eat. That sense of, if he doesn’t have enough tools, including the self-awareness piece, there can be a sense of flailing or feeling lost and going harder at the thing that has worked. He’s been in construction which has worked for him. He wouldn’t choose to do something that hadn’t worked, but we can watch him going, “Wrong tool for the job.” I’m totally on board with you, wrong tools, the wrong situation and not learning well. It sounds like he was unaware.

Putting yourself in the shoes of your audience and say, “How can they hear this?” If you address them in a language they don’t understand, they’re not going to listen. They’re going to shut down and then you’ve wasted everybody, then everybody’s time has been wasted.

How do you find that style shift that’s still you? You have lots to choose from. You have many ways to show up.

This has been such a delight. I could talk to you for hours about this. We probably have to get together one of these days and have some good constructive arguments.

I love that friction to talk about things.

Leave us with one place to start for the readers to say, “She’s talking about me.”

The first place to start is to exhale. Click To Tweet

The first place to start is to exhale. Many of us are told to inhale, or taught. I used to teach that. My first thing would be to exhale, which we do instinctively, and then allow your body to reset. We’re designed as a vacuum. The minute you exhale, it’s the pause. We need to think. When you exhale, the air comes in and you get the oxygen in your bloodstream. It’s the first place to recognize that counterintuitively, we hold our breath it’s the place to release that, to allow that. At the end of an exhale is a built-in pause in the human being until you need oxygen. It’s a built-in way to have a pause and then allow the air back in to connect.

This is wonderful. Thank you so much for being a guest. If you enjoyed this, dear readers, please tell your friends. Spread the news so that we can get more readers to brilliant guests like Hilary. You can subscribe to us on YouTube or on whatever podcast app. Please, if you get a chance, leave us a good review on Apple Podcasts. That’s the visible one, so that’s the one where we need more followers. I’ll see you at the next one.


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About Hilary Blair

Speakers Who Get Results | Hilary Blair | Leadership PresenceHilary Blair is a keynote speaker, champion of human connection, and the CEO of ARTiculate: Real&Clear. She is impassioned by moving beyond habits and learned behaviors to uncover what is unique and authentic in individuals and groups.

A presentation and speaking voice expert, Hilary is a highly regarded coach and facilitator working extensively across the globe with a variety of businesses including Maersk, Liberty Global, Slalom and ACLU. Whether facilitating workshops on professional presence, coaching tough conversations to improve leadership/team connection, or exploring the messiness of communication in a keynote, Hilary’s 30 plus years as a teacher combined with her professional stage, film and voice-over career present a unique skill set. She is certified in Conversational Intelligence and CultureTalk, and holds an MFA in acting from the National Theatre Conservatory and a BA from Yale University.