Strategies For Cultivating An Executive Presence In The New Normal With Gina Grahame

by | Jun 4, 2020 | Podcasts

SWGR 525 | Executive Presence


Executive presence is especially important in these troubled times. In a time when important decisions are being made left and right, a good executive presence allows one to speak with authority and expertise. Elizabeth Bachman interviews Gina Grahame, the Founder and CEO of the Grahame Institute of Strategic Communication. Elizabeth picks Gina’s brain for executive presence strategies to make use of in The New Normal. With Gina’s advice, you could be speaking with a much better hold of your authority in no time.

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Strategies For Cultivating An Executive Presence In The New Normal With Gina Grahame

This is the show where we interview experts from around the world on how to get your audience to do what you want them to do when you make a presentation. This also has to do with leadership and visibility that is behind what makes you stand up and do a presentation. It also has to do with the challenges of communication. I’m excited to be talking to Gina Grahame, who is a fellow presentation skills trainer. I want to invite you to go to our free quiz at That’s where you can take four minutes to see where you are rocking your presentation skills and where you might need a little bit of support. Gina Grahame, welcome to the show.

Thank you so much, Elizabeth. I’m happy to be here.

Gina Grahame maintains a lifelong fascination with interpersonal communication, specifically the role that gender plays in one’s assumptions, biases and reactions. Gina, I’m so excited to have you here because this is a huge topic and the sorts of things that I talk about when I work with my clients and I know you do too. You and I have sat in the corner in the bar and traded stories many times. Gina, in the first ten years of her career, her observations helped her navigate the business world while male and in the years since her gender transition as a female. These experiences provide her with unique insight and credibility to connect with audiences.

Gina has worked in sales across a variety of tech verticals, pitched and secured VC funding as an entrepreneur, won national and international awards in public and persuasive speaking. She is a lecturer in strategic communication and a communication coach at the Stanford Graduate School of Business. Also, Gina is building executive presence programs at Google and is wildly popular with some having a three-month waiting list. She’s also President of the Golden Gate Business Association, which is the LGBTQ Chamber of Commerce in San Francisco. That’s Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, and Queer Chamber of Commerce, for those of you who aren’t familiar with the acronym. The first question I always ask my guests is if you could have an interview with somebody from history, someone who’s not around at the moment to talk to, who would it be? What would you ask them? Who ought to be in the audience to listen?

There are so many people from history that I would love the opportunity to sit back and listen to. I would default to the one that I constantly go to who is the primary heroine of my life and that would be Eleanor Roosevelt. Why her? I find her personal story incredibly fascinating. Even though she was somewhat born into a little bit of wealth, not as much as people think she had tremendous hardship growing up as a child. She managed to overcome that and she became First Lady of the world, not just First Lady of the United States. She chartered and wrote the bill for the United Nations. She wrote so many books and thousands of columns. She out-earned her husband, Franklin, when he was President. She was doing 2 or 3 presentations a day. She was incredibly prolific. There are so many questions I would love to ask her. Primarily, “How did you manage to do all of this?” As far as I know, she only had the same 24 hours in a day as we do, but the output of what she did was amazing.

I watched the documentary of Michelle Obama’s book tour for her book, Becoming. She was talking about the strains of being First Lady which is even more so now that everybody in the world is watching you but also dealing with a husband who was half paralyzed. You only saw carefully selected pictures of him and her but that must have been quite a strain in life and yet they did so much.

They did and from most accounts, while Franklin certainly was progressive, there’s no question about that. It can be argued that his progressive views came from her. She pushed him toward equal rights and created programs that would help the poor and downtrodden, not only white people who are poor but black people who were poor. She was a huge advocate for civil rights in the 1940s. She is sometimes a little unsung for that and one of the most amazing things and facts I found about her when she learned that women were not allowed to the press briefings with President Roosevelt, she created her own. She started doing press briefings as the First Lady and only female reporters were allowed in the room. She held press briefings for women reporters. She is a staunch advocate for women’s rights.

That’s an interesting way to put it. I remember having many conversations with people about women’s rights and diversity. Here we are in the 21st century and we’re still talking about women’s rights. The definition has changed a little bit or expanded, but we’re still talking about how to be heard. We’re aware that getting women on boards is the beginning. It means diversity for all people. Racial, gender, and all sorts of age diversity helps companies. There are statistics that say corporations with diverse boards do 19% more profit than the ones that are all one or all the other. If you think about Eleanor Roosevelt starting that way, I’m curious, you’re a lecturer at the Stanford Graduate School of Business. When you talk about building executive presence and strategic communications there, where do you start? I’m assuming that your classes are mixed male and female.

The definition of “women’s rights” has changed. Share on X

They run the spectrum on gender as well as nationality. All of that is there. I’m fortunate that the primary program at the GSB has been written by the professor who leads it. Burt is an amazing teacher, an amazing coach, and JD Schramm who created this program many years ago. From my side, I’m happy to add my experiences and a little bit of what I teach and what I’ve experienced to aid in that but it’s a program that Burt Alper has created that is incredible. Where do I start with executive presence? In my training or in the one-on-one coaching people, the first question I always ask is, “What does executive presence mean to you?”

Everyone tends to have a different definition of that. It can be body language, mannerism, being calm, able to effectively communicate their message to different audiences. As many people as you ask is pretty much as the number of definitions you’re going to get for what executive presence is. I tend to default to the definition with a bit of homage to Supreme Court Justice Potter when he was describing obscenity in the Supreme Court. He said, “I know it when I see it.” Executive presence is the same way. It might be hard to quantify and specifically put down in words, but you know it when you see it.

I’m going to add a different side of this. One of the things that I have heard and seen is, he or she doesn’t have executive presence can often be code for, “We don’t want to hire that person because they’re different.” Different skin color, gender, and they’re different from us. We don’t have a good reason for it. Something doesn’t feel right so it must be a lack of executive presence. How do you answer that?

My first reaction would be that’s a bit of a catch-all statement. It requires follow-up questions because it’s a large bucket to cast a dispersion into or an opinion, but you would need to drill down to what does that mean? Often, I’ve had people say, “She doesn’t have executive presence.” Give me an example of where you notice this or you notice a lack of this. Often it might come down to, “I feel like she’s young. I feel that he sounds or presents young.” “I feel that he’s not confident he doesn’t have any gravitas or he’s not able to persuade anyone.” You’ve got to drill down and get a specific example of how they are defining executive presence to say someone else doesn’t have it?

How do you find out? How do they hear that if they say, “Lack of executive presence?” Do you ever get to talk within a company? Do you get to talk to the people who said that?

Quite often, and it gets both sides. Often I’ll talk to the person who has been told that a heightened executive presence is what’s needed to advance their career so they’re coming in with the feedback they’ve been given. Other times I do have the ability to talk to the supervisor because they’re the ones making the decision. My idea of executive presence, the person who has received the feedback, their idea of executive presence can both be different from the person who gave that opinion. I need to get from the horse’s mouth so to speak.

I need to find out exactly what it is that they’re noticing or not noticing. That can be a little tricky at times. It definitely has to be a conversation that, depending on who you’re talking to, is a bit off the record because sometimes people will say something that they are afraid might come back and sound sexist, racist, or ageist. They’re afraid to tell you what they’re feeling so you’d have to create a safe space for them to do that. I can’t solve a problem if I don’t know what the problem is. If you’re telling me a symptom, that’s not going to help me solve it.

Gina, how can you show executive presence? How do you help people? What tips can our readers get from you?

SWGR 525 | Executive Presence

Executive Presence: Executive presence can be about body language, mannerisms, being calm, or being able to effectively communicate one’s message to different audiences.


If you want to distill it down to its most fundamental components, executive presence is three attributes and three things, it is intentional eye contact, it is stillness, moving with the only purpose, and it is the pauses between what you say. If you can master those three, you can master executive presence. That means you can communicate your message effectively to anyone regardless of age, gender, title, stature, or nationality, it doesn’t matter. Those three components and how you blend them depends on who you’re talking to.

You’ve said something about gravitas, which is a wonderful Latin word. Can you talk about how you define gravitas? We’ve got an international audience here. A lot of people are reading in English, but it is their second or third language so people might not know the word.

There’s a certain weight to what you say. There’s this certain ability to hold your space and that comes back to the three components, being able to look someone in the eye. There are a lot of cultural issues at this one so I work with a great number of people who come from outside of the US wanting to work within the US. I have not worked in the opposite direction. I haven’t worked in other cultures only with people from other cultures, so understanding that can play into it. Here, eye contact is crucial. There’s a certain semblance in Western culture that if someone won’t look you in the eye, you won’t believe them. Elizabeth, if you ask me, “Gina, is this project going to be done this Friday?” I’m like, “Yes. We’re working on this. I’m going to have this one. I’ve got everybody pulling it.” If I’m not looking at you, you’re not going to believe it. There are those three components again. The eye contact, stillness, and the pauses between what you say. If you use it effectively, it creates a gravitas.

Tell me more about the pauses? What do you mean by the pauses between what you say?

The pauses are incredibly important and it goes back to the idea that short sentences are better than long. What tends to happen is people tend to string 2 or 3 ideas into a single sentence, when they should be single ideas per sentence rather than having a break. It’s in that slight break. It’s those 2 or 3 moments of pause that allow people to take what you’ve said and digest it. It’s like that. It doesn’t take long, it’s moments of pause because it’s in those moments that you let us know something, as a speaker, that what I’ve said is important and I want you to think about it for a moment. If I run through it to say, “There are three components to executive presence, it’s the pause, the stillness, and the eye contact. Those three together create an executive presence.” Three thoughts in one sentence. You need the pauses to assimilate and digest it.

It’s interesting that this is something I used to do with singers all the time. I still do say, “Honor your punctuation, the commas and the periods. Even if they’re not written in there, you need to have a beginning and an end for people to understand that.” I work a lot in German and I had a German teacher once who said, “Elizabeth, your problem is, in German, the verb comes at the end. You have to know before you start the sentence what you want to say. You start talking and you never know where you’re going to go. Your sentence goes around and around. You can’t do that in German.” That was a useful lesson. I had not thought about that. Do you find that with the single focused and multi-focused people, that you have this difference? We have the people who are going to drill down and they’re going to say one thing or the people who are thinking of lots of different things.

That’s irrelevant to how you present and how your mind works. Some people tend to develop a thought and speak it. Other people tend to develop their thoughts as they speak. That’s the way that people’s minds process. One is not better than the other. They’re just different. That has no bearing on how you should be presenting your view. That can vary slightly with who you’re talking to and what you’re trying to accomplish.

We’ve talked a lot about the difference between presenting as a man and presenting as a woman and the different ways that people perceive you. You have been both. How does that inform what you know about communication and getting your message across?

You have to be aware of how you’re being perceived by the person you’re speaking to. Share on X

It forms so much in how I present because I’m well aware of how I’m being perceived by whomever I’m talking to. For the first ten years of my career, I was male. I was on stage touring with Ram Trucks for three years. I did commercials, some TV work, theater work, and modeled. I was well aware of how people perceived when they saw me and when I spoke. In the years since I’ve replicated everything in a different way and I’m well aware of that difference. The primary difference is that, frankly, coming into a situation and speaking as a male, there is implied credibility the moment I opened my mouth. Coming in and speaking as female, that implied credibility is not there.

I’ll give you an everyday example. I have an old car. I’m an old car buff, I have a ‘77 Mercedes 450 SL and there’s an auto parts store down the way. When I was male, I could walk into an auto parts store and say, “I need to get a set of spark plugs for a ‘77 Mercedes 450 SL.” “Coming up. Here you go,” and they hand them to me. I go in as a female, “I need a set of spark plugs for a ‘77 Mercedes 450 SL.” “What’s the problem?” “I need a set of spark plugs.” “It could be the wire. Sometimes that’s a problem there.” “No. The wires are fine.” “You might want to check the distributor on those.” “No.” I have to quantify my ask.

When you were an entrepreneur and you were pitching, how did you have to deal with quantifying and being perceived, especially pitching as a woman in the days when there weren’t all that many female founders? What did you learn from that?

There’s a primary philosophy that we talk a lot about at Stanford at the GSB that is incredibly prevalent. I’m drawing a blank on the two women who created the diagram but it’s a triangle and it’s about knowing your AIM at each point of the triangle, Audience, Intent, and Message. Everything you do is to be focused on your aim. Who are you talking to? What do you want them to do? What is your intent? What do you want to say? What is your message? Going in pitching for funding as we did back in the late ‘90s, who was I talking to? What were their demographics? What are their backgrounds? What’s going to excite them? What is my intent? What do I want them to do? What’s my call to action going to be and how am I going to present it? What is the message?

Understanding that this was primarily a group of three men, I knew how they were going to respond. I knew their age, and I knew that if I spoke and used upspeak, and if I were to talk like this and I would finish my sentences up here, I was not going to have any credibility. If they were women that I was talking to, I would have inserted more upspeak because that is more indicative of how women speak and younger Millennial men as well. I practiced a speech pattern that I knew would resonate with them. It was not saying that was exactly how I speak all the time but I knew it would work.

I always could be coming back to, “It’s all about them.” Rule number one in presenting is who’s listening. You talk about authenticity. You had a great phrase. I heard you want to talk about authenticity being like pregnancy and you have a word of your own. Can you talk about that a little bit?

I believe that the word authentic is played out. It’s overused and watered down. People talk about there’s a certain level of authenticity. I always think of being authentic. Either you are or you aren’t. It’s like when you’re pregnant. You can’t be a little bit and that’s why that authenticity has been overused to the point that it’s irrelevant. I came up with the word authenticious because I wanted something that was more proactive sounding. The phrase is, “To be authenticious.” What does it mean to be authenticious? It means to be voracious, vibrations, audacious, and bodacious that you have to be more than authentic. The loudmouth drunk at the end of the bar can be authentic, but that’s not helping anyone, that’s not changing anyone’s life for the better. That’s not inspiring anyone and authenticious is doing exactly that.

I have a Gina Grahame postcard up on my wall. It says, “Be authenticious,” and I look at it regularly. You are also the President of the Golden Gate Business Association, which is a chamber of commerce for the gay community in the San Francisco Bay Area. How can we think about diversity or communicating either to someone who is a minority or if we are in a minority? I want a couple of questions about it. Talk about how you see business from the point of view of a minority chamber of commerce.

SWGR 525 | Executive Presence

Executive Presence: The three attributes of executive presence are eye contact, the pauses between the things you say, and physical stillness.


From this view, diversity is so incredibly important. My company which is the Grahame Institute, our value statement says, “We believe that only when traditionally marginalized people, women, LGBT, people of color, have a voice in the conversation, not just a seat at the table, will organizations and the world reach their full potential.” I believe the same thing is true in business throughout and as a chamber of commerce, that is a value, I believe, that we hold.

We’ve reached a point and our society, Western society specifically, when President Obama was President, we’re in a post-racial period. Often people will think that we’re in a post-gender period because now women are everywhere and we have a growing acceptance of non-binary so we’re in a post-gender period. The reality is quite different. There’s a massive difference between having a seat at the table and having a voice in the discussion. We have that seat at the table and now we need to have that voice. What we do and strive to as a chamber of commerce is to advocate, educate, and provide opportunities for LGBT small businesses within the greater business world.

Talk more about having a voice as opposed to having a seat at the table.

It’s tremendously important. Too often, and you’re probably able to relate to this, I’ll do corporate training and the room might be half-filled with women or more. Yet when I go through the course of the presentation or other training, each woman will tell me that in their daily life and at work, they’re the only woman in the meeting. At this moment in time, they represent half of the room. In reality, they’re the singular or 1 of 2 women in all of their meetings. They have a seat at the table but they don’t have a voice. They’re talked over by men. Men step over women verbally in meetings 350% more often. Simply being in the room is not going to constitute change.

This is a huge part of what I do with my clients indeed. I’m curious to know what steps or strategies do you recommend for those who feel they aren’t being heard.

There’s a variety. First off, you need to own your expertise. One of those I will often tell, especially when I talk to all women is, I love to look at everybody in the room, stop for a minute and say, “None of you have this job because you’re pretty. None of you were hired because you’re fun at parties or you tell great jokes. You’re here for one reason only. You’re smart. You’re good at your job. You kick ass and you to get shit done, frankly, and you need to own your expertise.” Saying you are an expert doesn’t mean you never make mistakes. Being an expert doesn’t mean you don’t change your mind when new data becomes available, but you have to be able to say that you are an expert.

I want to put that out and put it up in front of everybody I work with. How do we own our expertise?

There are a lot of little exercises that I’ll take people through and one-on-one coaching or in team settings that I can do. What I would say to people, a couple of strategies off the top is when you have an opinion when to jump into the conversation, do so. When was the last time you were in a meeting and you saw a man raised his hand? Probably not that often. It definitely doesn’t happen. For women who want to get engaged in that conversation, raising your hand, it can be varied by culture, company, or by whatever.

The word “authentic” is played out and overused. Share on X

Generally speaking, you don’t find men raising their hands to voice an opinion. You need to jump in as well. If you wait to be called, you’re going to keep waiting forever. Secondly, when you do speak, don’t undercut your expertise before you start to speak. I hear this all the time where women will jump into a meeting and say something along the lines of, “I know this is going to sound stupid and we probably already tried this but what if we did this?” They threw out two diminishing statements before they offered their opinion and you can’t do that. You need to jump in with your opinion. Don’t undercut your position before you say it.

Those are the internal blocks that people come to. How about finding allies? If you’re being talked over if somebody else says, “Here’s your idea,” and presents it as their own five minutes later, which believe it or not still happens all the time.

It’s called hepeating.

It’s not only men who do that. I’ve had women do that to me. Women who were single focused and out there talking and on a tear. There was a woman and I knew her well. I was able to say, “Did you say that because you heard me say that five minutes ago and you thought it was a good idea, or did you not hear me?” She said, “No. I thought it was a good idea. Did you say that?” I thought, “A woman doing that to another woman.” She was too busy talking to listen so that happens too. How about getting allies who can be the one to say, “That was Gina’s idea. What a great thing,” instead of being, “That was me,” because you undercut yourself that way too.

There are a variety of ways you can do that. The best way to get strong allies is to be a strong ally for other women and men in the meeting. If you find someone who was taking credit for something other people have done is to be the one to go, “That was a great idea, but that’s exactly what Elizabeth said so I totally agree.” Give credit to other people in real-time. If you can’t do it in real-time, it’s not going to build the credibility. Most people who do that who step over and repeat, hepeating or mansplaining don’t realize that they’re doing it. When someone can bring it out in real-time, they’re like, “Oh my god.” You’re not slamming them, but those little bits of, “That is a great idea. I heard Carol was talking about that,” or “Steve was mentioning the same thing.”

Secondly, if it’s something that’s pervasive with someone who’s more senior, I would suggest after this happens in a meeting, get with them one-on-one and have the conversation, “I wanted to bring this up. Did you realize you effectively took my idea, Elizabeth’s idea, Carol’s idea from someone else and repeat it as your own?” Get their feelings on it. If they’re like, “I had no idea I did that. I’m so sorry. I’ll try to pay attention.” If they come back with, “You all work for me so it doesn’t matter,” now you know where you stand in this particular room. To do that privately to not challenge them in public is one way.

Using soft power is another way to build that. If you have people that are more introverted as every company does, there are people that are more introverted and more extroverted. Too often, people in meetings call on people that are extroverted. Extroverts jump first. Exhibit and exude soft power. Be the one person to say, “Elizabeth, you’ve been quiet all meeting and I’d love to get your feedback on this,” or “Elizabeth and I were talking about this and she had a great idea surrounding this. Would you mind sharing it with the group?” Be the one that brings them in if the manager or whoever has arranged the meeting doesn’t. You’d be the one to exhibit soft power.

Being authenticious at work, is it safe to do that? Is it dangerous to do that?

SWGR 525 | Executive Presence

Executive Presence: In order to embody the presence you want to project, you have to own your expertise.


I don’t know how I would define dangerous. I go back to Eleanor Roosevelt. You must do one thing every day that scares you. If you don’t do anything that pushes you outside of your comfort zone, you are not going to grow in any part of life. Be authenticious at work. How do I define that? That is standing up for yourself and standing up for others and it’s being honest and accountable. That’s what leaders don’t deflect. That’s the easy way out.

Gina Grahame, this has been so much fun and interesting to talk about this. Your company is the Grahame Institute of Strategic Communication. How do we find you?

It’s a long name, but it’s a short URL. It’s basically that

Do you have one thought you can leave us with?

To every person reading, you have the ability to change and I’m going to echo the GSB model, “You have the ability to change lives, change organizations and change the world. Don’t doubt your expertise. Don’t sell yourself short. Aim higher.”

Thank you so much. Don’t forget before you leave, you want to go over to our free assessment. If you can see there in about four minutes where you are rocking in your presentation skills, where you’re great, and where you might need a little bit of support. I’ll see you on the next one.


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About Gina Grahame

SWGR 525 | Executive PresenceGina Grahame maintains a lifelong fascination with interpersonal communication, specifically the role gender plays in one’s assumptions, biases, and reactions.

In the first ten years of her career, Gina’s observations helped her navigate the business world while male; and in the 25 years since her gender transition, as female. These experiences provide her with unique insight and credibility to connect with audiences.
Gina has worked in sales across a variety of tech verticals, pitched and secured VC seed funding as an entrepreneur, and won national and international awards in public and persuasive speaking.

Gina is a Lecturer of Strategic Communication and a Communication Coach at the Stanford Graduate School of Business. Gina’s ‘Building Executive Presence’ programs at Google are wildly popular, with some having a three-month waitlist.

Gina is also President of the Golden Gate Business Association, the LGBTQ Chamber of Commerce of San Francisco.