The impact of gravitas and levitas: When to project strength or warmth
This article was originally written and published by Speak First
You’re always making an impression. The way you walk, talk and act all build a picture in people’s minds. The first impression you make is important in the way people think of you and react to you, but there’s also the question of the longer-term impression you create. You can’t stop this process – it’s constant and automatic – but you can control it.
Whether you’re in a leadership position, public speaking, trying to raise your profile at work or just want to project more confidence in your daily life, there are some key points to remember. Of course, you should always be yourself. Don’t try to change who you are or what you do, as this will only make you feel less confident and ultimately project the wrong impression because above all you need to be authentic. However, with just a few small steps you can start showing off the best version of yourself.
Gravitas: Owning the room
The word ‘Gravitas’ comes from the same Latin root as ‘Gravity,’ both meaning to have weight or seriousness. It’s probably a term you’ve heard before, as it’s often used to describe those with leadership qualities or the sort of people who effortlessly get people to listen to them. Many people aim to have this sort of presence, but it’s not a simple skill to master. Too much confidence can come across as arrogant and ultimately undermines the impression you want to make on them.
It’s an unfortunate truth of the world that people are judged as much, if not more, on their looks and mannerisms as their character and knowledge. Therefore, gravitas is largely based on visual and verbal elements.
Body language is key, so stand tall. This isn’t about height but the impression you give. Slouching and closed body language or fidgeting create a sense of unease. Obvious nerves counteract gravitas, so aim to use measured and deliberate movements which express dominance and confidence, rather than waving your arms around when speaking or shifting on the spot.
The way you speak also matters. Deeper, calm, slow-paced and commanding voices carry weight behind them. Don’t rush or act like you’re embarrassed to be taking up people’s time. You have something interesting to say and people want to listen – however, rambling on will undo this. By practicing speaking with preciseness, people will get to know that you’re worth listening to.
While this can all give you a seriousness and authority, remember that it’s only one half of what you should be aiming for…
Levitas: Making people like you
In a similar vein, ‘Levitas’ comes from the word ‘Levity,’ meaning bring a lightness to things – literally the opposite of gravitas’s ‘weight.’ It’s a less commonly used word, but you’ll likely be familiar with the concept.
Levitas is about being likable and bringing warmth to an interaction. People with this trait tend to be viewed as warmer and friendlier personalities. Where gravitas makes an impact through authority, levitas does it through openness and enthusiasm.
This warmth generally starts with the energy you give off – joy, humor and light-heartedness create a sense of likeability. It’s in direct contrast with the stoic attitude we discussed above. The overall goal is still to give off an air of confidence, but this time it’s about letting people in and having enough self-assuredness to be able to give of yourself to others.
Use open body language, don’t close yourself off with crossed arms. You should feel freer to move around – although there’s a fine line between enthusiastic gestures and looking erratic. Stand straight, without being rigid, and adding a genuine smile goes a long way to making you look trustworthy and inviting. Make eye contact with people you’re talking to, as this builds genuine human connections. Be present and really listen to what they are saying.
Your vocal tone also makes a difference. Gentle cadence and emotions help lighten the mood, so you can take your time when you speak. Similarly, matching the energy of how others talk to you and showing real and genuine emotions helps people relate to you. When someone speaks with enthusiasm for their topic radiating off them, their audience is much more likely to become invested with them. Treat every conversation with this mentality. You shouldn’t overdo it, but by allowing yourself to project your feelings when you talk, you’ll get others on your side.
Charisma: The balancing act
Professor Amy Cuddy of Harvard Business School explains first impressions are really two separate impressions: ‘We’re judging how warm and trustworthy the person is, and that’s trying to answer the question: “What are this person’s intentions toward me?” We’re also asking ourselves “How strong and competent is this person?”’1
So, it’s clear that authority, strength and a weightiness to your words, paired with genuine enthusiasm and friendliness becomes a powerful mix. This is what people commonly refer to as ‘Charisma.’
People tend to show more respect and deference to those who project confidence and competence. People who show kindness and warmth to others are generally better liked. Real leadership and impact come from those that do both well.
This is a fine line to walk, finding the right balance between displays of strength and likeability, exercising authority and kindness, stoicism and warmth. These are all, to greater and lesser degrees, traits everyone should work towards – in both business and our general lives.
However, going too far towards pure gravitas risks coming across as cold and egotistical, losing goodwill from those around you. On the other hand, only caring about others liking you makes you come across as a pushover, causing people to question your competence. Finding the perfect middle ground between all these elements is tricky and takes practice. You want people to listen when you talk, but agree with you because they think you’re right, not because they’re scared to argue.
All of this works online as well as in person. The words you use carry their own weight, whatever the medium. Your body language online is limited to your top half, so consider the facial expressions you’re making and whether your hand gestures can (and should) be seen.
Unfortunately, there’s no perfect formula – every situation requires something a little different. When presenting to your organization’s Board of Directors, you probably want to project a bit more authority and responsibility. However, when leading a team meeting, you can have a little more humor and levity. When delivering bad news, you may start with gravitas and then switch to levitas as you explain the way forward. Above all be your authentic self. Being comfortable with who you are means you are more likely to feel confident and appear trustworthy to others.
Overall, the main issue is to make a conscious decision to think about how you’re behaving and the impact you’re having. Whether you give a handshake or a high-five, a smile or a deadpan expression, speak fast and excitedly or slowly and carefully, make sure you’re doing it deliberately and acting appropriately for the situation. When you learn to naturally adapt to suit the situation, you’ll be confident that you always leave people with the impression that you’re confident and able – the true mark of a positive impact.
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1 Wired (2012) First Impressions: The Science of Meeting People
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