Nutshell: Roots and wings: gravitas – a thoroughly modern Roman virtue

Written by
Clare Grist Taylor, Associate Editor, Changeboard

Published
03 Feb 2020

03 Feb 2020 • by Clare Grist Taylor, Associate Editor, Changeboard

Gravitas is a skill all leaders can master – with experience and practice.

Spare a thought for psychologist Albert Mehrabian. His work on the relationship between verbal and non-verbal communication must rank among the most misquoted scientific work ever. It’s simply not true that his “7% (words) -38% (tone of voice) -55% (non-verbal messages) rule” means that non-verbal cues account for 55% of any communication, no matter how often the claim is made. It’s all a bit more complex and finessed than that. 

The fact that Mehrabian keeps showing up is perhaps an indication, though, of our innate understanding of, our fascination with, those aspects of communication which aren’t just about what we say, but about how we say it. That could be how we use our voice or a whole range of non-verbal cues – a gesture here, a facial expression there, how we stand, what we wear – that make up how we communicate. It’s a package that can make all the difference between creating the shared meaning we need when we communicate and misunderstandings, lack of connection or even a breakdown of trust. 

Because communication is intimately bound up with behaviours, it stands to reason that, if we want to become better communicators, we need to pay attention to how our behaviours – and those of others – influence how we give and receive messages. For people to pay attention, to listen to us, we need not only to choose our words carefully, but also to pay attention to how we deliver them. 

This is especially important for leaders. Research shows that the effects of emotional contagion, the transfer of moods between people in a group, are amplified for leaders. If we can keep calm and communicate clearly, confidently and consistently, if we can create the psychological safety that positive workplaces need to function, then we stand a much better chance of getting our messages across. 

The gravitas equation

But just how can we muster this kind of confidence and authority when we communicate at work? 

For voice coach Caroline Goyder, we’d do well to learn from the ancients, harnessing one of the Roman virtues, a characteristic that formed an important element of their blueprint for how to be a good Roman citizen. In her book, Gravitas, Goyder explains how the idea of gravitas, and the rhetorical tradition that taught the ancients to deploy it, is still very much our friend when it comes to expressing ourselves effectively today. 

Gravitas has been defined variously as seriousness, dignity, influence and presence, something that evokes feelings of respect and trust in others. We might not be able to describe it exactly, but we know it when we see it: just think of how we feel when we leave an inspirational or memorable presentation, or meet a new colleague and are left with the impression that they are, well, impressive. Those people have made a connection with us. For Goyder, it’s part of an ancient tradition around what makes for impact: “how you think, how you speak, how you listen, how you move and how you manage emotion”.

Fortunately, she also agrees with the Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius, who suggested that the kinds of things that make up gravitas are within reach of us all: “Cultivate these, then, for they are wholly within your power: sincerity and dignity…be temperate in manner and speech; carry yourself with authority.” Gravitas is a skill we can master with experience and practice.

To make that a reality, and with more than a passing reference to Aristotle’s three pillars of logos, ethos and pathos, Goyder provides her own blueprint, the gravitas equation: 

knowledge (logos) + purpose (ethos) + passion (pathos) (-anxiety) = gravitas

Knowledge is not just about what you know intellectually, your sphere of excellence, important as that is. It’s also about the way you express what you know, whether that’s in writing, using our voices or our bodies, being concise or keeping cool under pressure. 

Purpose is about values, what gives momentum, the greater good that makes thing matter to us and to others. 

Passion is the spark that sets our knowledge alight. It inspires and engages us – and also others. 

Once we have our knowledge, purpose and passion working in harmony, and we can work towards managing and controlling the anxiety and self-consciousness that can derail us, then we’re well on the way to communicating with gravitas. 

In practical terms, Goyder suggests we look out for these signs of alignment in others, and learn from what we observe. Consider, for example:

Knowledge (logos) factors

  • expertise and authority
  • clarity and conciseness of the message
  • evidence of ‘physical knowledge’: grounded posture and open and expressive body language
  • a logically presented case, well-paced for the content and using appropriate vocabulary.

Purpose (ethos) factors 

  • a sense of purpose, of the greater good
  • calmness, authenticity, credibility and warmth – trust builders
  • authenticity – a match between inner and outer worlds.

Passion (pathos) factors

  • how engaged we are
  • attentiveness to, and empathy with, the audience
  • how we feel as a result. 

Self-regulation (management of anxiety) factors

  • calmness and self-control
  • minimal ego and self-consciousness
  • dealing well with anxiety and stress
  • being open to new challenges
  • the ability manage conflict elegantly and empathetically. 

Conversely, look out for tell-tale signs such as rushing through things, not varying the pace of speech, negative body language or being derailed by a stressful situation that might mean that gravitas is being compromised. 

Physical knowledge: using our voices

Our voices are perhaps one of our most underused tools when it comes to effective communication. While we might agonise over the building blocks of written communication, we often pay much less attention to how we say what we say when we’re communicating verbally. Welcome to the world of paralinguistics.

There are several factors at play when it comes to using our voices effectively, including: 

Tone/register

Research suggests that lower voices project power and authority, whether for politicians or business leaders. Low voice tone comes from lower in our bodies, our diaphragms. 

Volume 

Sometimes speaking more quietly is appropriate; at other times we need to up the volume and project. Variation in volume creates interest. 

Pace

The pace or rate at which we speak should be neither too fast nor too slow. Too fast a pace is often associated with nerves, in which case we need to take a moment, breathe and recalibrate. Pace can also be varied for emphasis. One rule of thumb that the drama school RADA encourages when giving a speech or presentation is to pause after each sentence for as long as the previous sentence just spoken. It can feel painfully slow to the speaker, but hugely clear and simple to the listener.

Pausing and silence

Not saying anything can a very powerful way to communicate. Both pausing and silence can speak volumes, and help to reinforce what we do say. 

Prosody

Using the right intonation, stress and rhythm when we speak are crucial for communicating the right meaning. For Goyder, emphasising what she calls the “telegram” words that are essential for meaning is “the highlighter pen of good speech”. 

As with all forms of communication, the trick is to have these tools at your disposal and to deploy them depending on context and audience. We need to think of our voices as instruments, and that means practice: practice to find a low, grounded tone to give us gravitas; to enunciate clearly; use pauses and silence more; find the right pace for that upcoming presentation.  

It’s about hitting that sweet spot where clarity of message meets optimal delivery. 

Physical knowledge: non-verbal communication

In a now famous TED talk, psychologist Amy Cuddy introduced us to the ‘power pose’, the idea that adopting a physical stance that makes us feel ‘big’ or powerful can also make us feel and behave with more authority which, in turn, leads to better outcomes. Exhorting us to “fake it until we become it” has not been without its problems for Cuddy since then, but the idea of using our posture for gravitas is an interesting example of the relationship between our physical and mental states and the crucial role played by body language when we communicate – whether we’re on transmit or receive. 

When management guru, Peter F Drucker, suggested that “the most important thing in communication is hearing what isn't said”, he was reminding us that the positive behaviours we need for communication are not just about the words we use and how we use them, but also about the non-verbal signals we give. Get them right, and we’re well on the way to putting people at their ease, building trust and connecting (research has even suggested that using a few, simple hand gestures can make a difference when it comes to persuasion). Get them wrong and we can confuse, offend or undermine what we want to convey.  

As with our voices, it’s important to understand the potential and pitfalls of what are often unconscious cues and behaviours. We need to become more conscious about their effects and more intentional about using them positively. According to the Edward G. Wertheim, author of The Importance of Effective Communication, there are five main effects that non-verbal communication can have:

  1. Repetition: they can reinforce a verbal message. 
  2. Contradiction: they can contradict the message.
  3. Substitution: they can substitute for a verbal message.
  4. Complementing: they can add to, or complement, a verbal message.
  5. Accenting: they can help to emphasise a certain point in a message. 

It’s easy to see how sending out non-verbal signals that don’t match what we’re saying might suggest to the listener that we may not be telling the truth (contradiction), or that a facial expression can often tell us more than words ever could (substitution). If we are to achieve gravitas as leaders, a confident handshake (accenting), leaning in and giving people our full attention (complementing), managing our facial expressions (repetition) – and, yes, even that authoritative posture (perhaps not the full power pose) are all part of the package. 

We’d be well advised to learn from Mae West who, with characteristic wit, said: “I speak two languages, Body and English”. 

Types of non-verbal communication

  • Facial expressions
  • Body movement and posture
  • Gestures
  • Eye contact
  • Haptics (touch) 
  • Proxemics (use of personal space) 
  • Appearance

Towards gravitas

In his book, Power Cues, communications theorist and coach Nick Morgan exhorts us to “take control of our communications before someone else does”. His starting point is that, if we can teach ourselves to become more aware of the unconscious thoughts and behaviours that underpin so much communication, then we can better control our own communications and those of others. 

Morgan has identified seven ‘power cues”’which give us the opportunity to signal our intent as leaders: 

1. Become self-aware

Do an audit of how you’re currently showing up in your conversations, meetings or presentations. 

Are you powerful and commanding? Are you friendly and warm? Do people fear you, trust you, like you, avoid you, flock to you? What happens? Do you take charge or take a backseat? Knowing yourself is the precursor to mastering those unconscious behaviours. 

2. Take charge of non-verbal communication

What emotions do we convey through our body language? 

We need to manage and focus our emotions, de-clutter our minds so that we stop having muddled interactions. When we can focus on the emotions we need when we need them, we can improve our non-verbal communications – and also help to make others feel the same too (emotional contagion again). In a nod to all the power posers out there, this process can start with the gestures to drive emotions or work from emotions to gestures. For Morgan, charisma is simply a matter of focused emotion. 

3. Learn to read others’ unconscious messages

Being able to decode non-verbal signals form others gives us an insight into them – without them having to say a word. By asking some simple binary questions like: is this person friend or foe? Is this person telling the truth or lying? Is this person on my side or not? Is this person powerful or not?, we can learn to read the signals that others send us.

4. Master the power of your voice

As we’ve already seen, we can learn to increase the leadership potential of our voices through practice, breathing and other vocal exercises. It really will make all the difference. 

5. Combine voice and body language

Look to synchronise body language and voice – Wertheim’s repetition and complementing – for maximum effect. 

6. Learn to manage your fears

As with Goyder’s gravitas equation, we need to balance all of the positive characteristics we’re looking to develop with the tackling the big derailer; fear. Like all other inner critic voices, we need to acknowledge our fears around communication (writing them down often helps), compare the fears with the reality or likely reality and adjust our thinking accordingly. What’s the worst that can really happen? 

7. Become a storyteller

For Morgan, great leaders are storytellers. Stories not only create anticipation and interest, but also an emotional connection with an audience, which is what we need for the message to hit home. 

This leads us, perhaps inevitably, back to the ancients. Aristotle knew that emotion – his pathos – was essential to communicating with gravitas. Goyder calls this the need to win over both “hearts and minds”. We need to take our listeners or readers on a journey, while we keep an open mind and on an even keel to meet the challenges ahead. 

Mastering gravitas is about Goyder’s ‘roots and wings’: roots that give us stability and confidence in ourselves; wings that allow us to be open and easy with others. When it comes to communicating at work, laying the gravitas groundwork really does create the environment where audiences actively want to listen to what we say. 

 

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