The language of leadership
Oliver Stohlmann’s Corporate Survival Hacks series draws on his experiences of working in local, regional, and global life science communications to offer some little tips for enjoying a big business career. This post looks at the amazing ability of some leaders to inspire and ignite action through their speeches, while others seem unable to mobilise despite a perfect script.
Speaking at a digital health conference in Italy recently, I was pleased that audience members commented after the session that the panel had been perceived as openly sharing tangible, honest perspectives “without the usual industry fluff” often associated with company representatives, as one participant put it.
The feedback prompted me to reflect: why is it that some speakers are able to ‘touch’ people, igniting true listening and action, while others seem to fail at engaging listeners no matter how hard they try?
It’s in the delivery
Preparation is key in delivering an impactful speech, presentation, or interview. However, in my observation, the difference between delivering high- versus low-impact talks rarely lies in the mere accumulation of interesting data or other content. It’s in the delivery.
Before any audience will embrace your expertise and the facts you’re sharing, they’ll want to connect with you. Before they can trust your data, they need to be able to trust you, find you credible and likeable. Without exception, no compelling speaker I ever experienced cut straight to their topic of the day. Instead, they always establish an emotional connection with the audience first, to create a basis for an amazing talk.
How leaders speak
Studying closely outstanding leaders who were also compelling public speakers, I noticed two things they had in common: an instinctive ability to, first, create a strong emotional bond with their audience, before then remaining authentic, personable, and occasionally vulnerable throughout the talk.
One of the most impressive speakers I worked with would always start from a place he knew the audience would be passionate about, before bridging to the formal topic of the day. It went like this: “Did anyone watch the Bruins’ game last night..? Oh my God did they give the Maple Leafs a good thrashing. What did you think..? You know, as I was sitting there in my hotel room with a pizza and beer, watching the match, I thought what outstanding leadership by the Bruins coach when he…” And off he would go into a talk about leadership, culture, the importance of collaboration, and showing up as one team to achieve outstanding results.
That simple. That effective. By connecting with people’s known passion for the local hockey team, using plain language, and sounding like one of them eating pizza and drinking beer, this leader had most listeners in the room instantly hooked, liking and trusting him. He’d shown he cared about what’s important to them, therefore, they cared about what else he was going to share.
Don’t be a talking head
The best speakers don’t bend over backwards to sound polished, slick, and flawless – who really is? They permit themselves to be vulnerable and human. They go off script occasionally. They seek and react to audience input. They don’t sound like scripted talking heads, but like real people having a real conversation with a real person or larger audience.
They speak plain, active language using verbs and accessible phrases, rather than stale nouns and complicated jargon – making it fun and interesting to listen to. They form simple sentences that you can follow, rather than complex, lengthy constructs that are hard to remember.
Work the audience
Their gestures are natural and fit their personality. They look at individuals in the audience, not over their heads or down at a teleprompter; they usually pick someone, look at and speak to that person for a few seconds, then move focus to the next individual. Over time, this makes the audience feel the speaker has interacted with each of them personally.
When they have a conversation with you one-on-one, they look you straight in the eyes, with genuine interest. They make you feel no other person on the planet is more important to them just now.
One senior global business leader, at the end of an intense media programme we hosted for him at the company’s largest R&D facility, thanked me for the hard work. When I pointed to my assistant who’d relentlessly worked on most of the project’s details, he went straight over to her, shook her hand with serious demeanour and repeated his sincere thanks. His simple, heartfelt attention in one short moment gained not just our full attention and future support, but lasting loyalty that’s hard to achieve through other means or actions. Plus, years later, he successfully hired me over to another company, based on my genuine trust and respect, as well as a curiosity to continue to learn from this leader’s great example.
Speak like a real person
Throughout my career, I also had ample opportunity to observe trained-up speakers stoically following script. Don’t get me wrong, these are usually extremely smart and accomplished leaders, too. And sticking to script is not necessarily a bad idea.
However, those leaders I’m thinking of seem to lack a knack for communicating in real-speak, on eye-level. You hear scripted, memorised, written messages that sound fabricated when someone actually says them out loud. A moment later, you’ve often forgotten these, as they don’t speak to you. They don’t stick.
A good written text does not equal a compelling speech. In text, writers tend to carefully weigh every word, avoid duplications, remain totally factual, build accurate sentences, and use correct tenses, technical jargon, complex expressions, and watertight definitions. All of these we typically avoid in a conversation with the neighbour over the fence. If you wish for an audience to remember – and to act upon – your presentation, why use language you’d never use in real life?
Or which of these statements will you remember better?
- “The Holland Tunnel connects Manhattan to New Jersey. I recently decided to traverse it.”
- “I drove to Manhattan through that long, eerie tunnel… What’s the name..? Ah yes, the Holland Tunnel.”
Don’t be perfect
‘Perfect’ communication is an empty shell. What makes us trust others are empathy, emotions, authenticity, integrity. In the absence of that, people may sense, often subconsciously, that you’re hiding something, trying to sell them something they don’t want, or otherwise manipulating them.
This also goes for the visuals and illustrations used in talks or presentations. Perfected photos and videos may work in advertising, and sales pitches where customers ‘wish’ to be convinced of the flawless product or service they’re about to purchase. However, perfect images typically don’t resonate too well with ordinary people. To create trust, interest, followership, and action, then consider showing real-world scenarios, diversity, and emotions. Be real, not perfect.
Without the ability to foster trust, organisational leaders won’t be able to establish lasting credibility and loyalty. Their leadership over people will only work for a limited time. After a while, a disenchanted workforce, as well as external stakeholders, will stop listening and following.
Or would you be inspired by someone who keeps serving up factually accurate, yet unmemorable speeches? Someone who keeps demonstrating how much they know, but never shows how much they care?
- Create an emotional connection with the audience
- Show that you care about what’s important to them
- Remain authentic and personable
- Permit yourself to be vulnerable and human
- It’s okay to go off script occasionally
- Seek and react to audience input
- Have a real conversation, don’t sound like a scripted talking head
- Speak plain, active language, using verbs and accessible phrases
- Avoid complicated jargon
- Form simple sentences, rather than complex, lengthy constructs
- Look individuals in the eyes, not over their heads or down at a teleprompter
- Be real, not perfect
- Use language you’d also use in real life
- Underpin your talk with real-world images, show diversity and emotions
- Show how much you care before showing how much you know
About the author
Oliver Stohlmann is a communications leader with more than 20 years’ experience of working at local, regional, and global levels for several of the world’s premier life-science corporations. Most recently, he was Johnson & Johnson’s global head of external innovation communication.