Catherine Allison was in the library to tell us everything there is to know about what it means to have gravitas—here's what we learned.

Most of us have an idea in our head when we hear the word ‘gravitas’. But as Catherine Allison, founder of the consultancy agency Master the Art tells us, most of these assumptions are wrong—or at least not the complete picture. Drawing on her experiences in consultancy as well as in acting, Catherine was in the library this week to break down some of the assumptions we have about what gravitas is, who can wield it and how it is a skill that can be applied to just about any situation.

Here’s what we learned.

Those with gravitas, Catherine says, “are viewed with greater respect, are attributed with greater ability and make people want to listen to them.” Most would agree they could benefit from the things gravitas brings to the workplace, but the problem is that most of us assume ‘having’ gravitas is only possible for a select group of people. Catherine points out that when we think of who we describe as having gravitas, our thoughts immediately turn to older men, particularly statesmen and politicians. But gravitas is not a skill exclusive to any one particular demographic, gender or personality type: “gravitas is for everybody, and not just for people in positions of power.”

Indeed, gravitas is not even a skill used exclusively in presentations or public speaking: it is about “how we can speak so that other people will listen,” regardless of context. It is about establishing an “inner confidence when it comes to demonstrating outer confidence.”

Catherine asked the audience to bring together words, rather than people, that define gravitas to establish a common vocabulary of what we mean by the term: a strong voice, decisive, comfortable with a pause, knowledgeable, self-assured, calm, presence, humorous, logical, effortless, unflappable.

The gravitas equation

Gravitas, as it is conventionally defined in the dictionary, is primarily associated with ‘weightiness’ or ‘seriousness’. But Catherine finds this definition to be missing half of the picture: “this seriousness and importance of manner [...] sounds a bit too heavy. The important thing with gravitas is that that weightiness, that stuffiness, always needs to be balanced with the ability to lighten up, have humour and wit.” 

Gravitas is essentially a combination of elements, says Catherine, which can be more easily considered as forming part of an equation:

Knowledge + Purpose + Passion (– Anxiety) = Gravitas

The trick with these elements is to find a balance between all of them—too much of one, or lacking in another altogether, and the equation does not work.

If we are too analytical, we come across as too mechanical, serious and without any feeling; whereas if we are too passionate without any grounding in what we are passionate about, and why, we will come across as all surface. Being confident about what we know, but also why we know it and what makes it important to us, is the foundation for gravitas.

The inner voices

Having given us a better idea of what gravitas is and how we can approach it, the time came for Catherine to explain how we can apply it, first by looking at the way we speak, both externally and internally.

The greatest impediment to making this equation work is our own inner voice—or voices. Most people agree that on occasion we suffer from the voice of doubt in our minds, that tells us what we are doing is wrong, or pointless, or just stupid: “we have these voices in our head, and they are negative voices most of the time. It’s very easy to let these voices derail you.” They can make us feel incompetent and anxious; they can make us lose our confidence. “It’s not exactly empowering,” says Catherine.

How can we get a grip on these voices? “The important thing to know is there are in fact two voices in your head”: the negative being the inner critic, and the other, lesser known one, which “a lot of us fail to use”, is the inner coach. “The inner coach does calm and celebration. The inner critic does refinement.”

Gravitas is actually not possible without the inner critic. “It’s the voice that allows us to refine and improve, to get better.” The issue is that the inner critic is easily put into overdrive, at the expense of the inner coach – the voice we need at the moment we are presenting ourselves.

To get ourselves thinking with the inner coach, Catherine offers up a deceptively simple idea: close your eyes and pay yourself a compliment. Feeling good about ourselves is the only way we can let the inner coach speak to us.

The outer voice

“Speaking clearly and articulately, and getting to the point, is a key part of gravitas. Research shows that certain aspects of speech can affect decision making. The things that are important are tone, pause, and pace.”

And so what tone is important for gravitas? Catherine splits tone of voice into three main subheadings: the ‘head’ voice, the ‘heart’ voice, and the ‘gut’ voice. Understanding how these voices work is crucial. If our voice is too high pitched, we will come across as silly or frivolous; whereas if our voice is too low, we will come across as too serious or, worse, a bit of a drag.

The head voice is the one we use when conducting analytical tasks, like number crunching, the heart voice for talking about a subject of personal importance; while the gut voice is instinctual and for when we’re talking about something we know to be the right thing to do. And these voices can be controlled, given we are made aware of what they sound like. “You can change vocal gear depending on the situation you’re faced with.”

For Catherine, the gut voice—which is tied to the ‘purpose’ part of the gravitas equation—is especially important for gravitas: “it’s about drive, it’s about making changes, it’s about action.” But as with everything to do with gravitas, it’s finding that balance between each, and not relying too heavily on any one thing.

The power of the pause

“The right word may be effective, but no word was ever as effective as a rightly timed pause” — Mark Twain

No matter what words we use, or what voice we use to say them, Catherine believes pause and pace are perhaps single-handedly the most important things to get right when speaking with gravitas. “Most of us are uncomfortable with silence, and we attempt to fill it.” But pause and pace is not about creating dramatic effect; it’s about letting our audience contemplate what we’re saying, and thus giving it more impact: “you’ve got to allow each of your thoughts to land.” We should always pause for longer than we think we should, says Catherine.

Body language

Catherine notes that “we had body language before we had speech.” The impressions we make on people are made before we even begin to open our mouths; something as simple as making sure to establish eye contact can make a big difference. Catherine emphasised how crucial it is to practice keeping eye contact, and “start to learn how it feels to make that connection.”

Body language is also the way we often get out our pent-up anxieties: “when we feel those tensions raising in our bodies, we tend to flap our bodies around.” In short, giving our bodies something to do helps us keep in control of it; as well as giving us a greater awareness of what kind of message we’re projecting through our body language.

Catherine went through some archetypal body language ‘tricks’—such as putting on a power stance, restricting your hand movements to a box shape, or showing your palms when you want to appear honest. But throughout these examples Catherine stressed that body language is not about acting out prescribed movements, which simply feels insincere and lacking in the ‘passion’ part of the gravitas equation. “It’s not about trying to be something that you’re not, but discovering what feels natural.”

Closing thoughts

To close, Catherine took us back to the gravitas equation as the foundation in which to make sense of everything, as not only as a reminder to the combination of things we need, but as a guide to “understand which parts you need to work on the most.” Finally, she left us with a quote from Victor Hugo that she believed best encapsulated everything we had talked about: “Concision in style, precision in thought, decision in life.”

All photography by Sam Bush

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