Training August 2015

Leaders need to find their voice

Why are so few business leaders good communicators, given all the education they have received, starting at varsity and then later, through their organisations? Leaders—let’s stop kidding ourselves. The reality is, if we can’t talk to people, we can’t lead successfully.

The technology, entertainment, design (TED) talk phenomenon, which has spawned TEDxEverywhere, should be having a positive impact on leaders. It would appear though that not many of us are taking any note.

Leaders are often told they need to be authentic. To some, that means it is fine to be dull, obtuse, monotone and forgettable. Dramatic oratorical flourishes are not required, but congruency is a must. For leaders, this means matching the way we communicate with the content of our message.

When we speak in a monotone delivery, placing equal stress on each word, sadly our audience just tunes us out. They start to look for other points of stimulation, such as how we are dressed, our body language or our voice quality—almost everything except the actual key messages of our content. Authentic failure as a communicator is probably not what leaders have in mind as the desired outcome.

Leaders need to match their vocal variation and facial expression to the message being delivered. Congruency means emphasising key words or phrases, through either adding to, or subtracting from, voice projection.

Whispering is as powerful as yelling, as long as the message is aligned with the delivery mechanism. Increasing and decreasing our energy and speed when speaking creates the necessary vocal variation to keep the audience focused on what we are saying.

Leaders are often notable for speaking while exhibiting a “wooden face”, meaning they maintain the same facial expression throughout their talk. Good, striking and even exceptional news is delivered with the same expression as in announcing disaster, doom and gloom.

The simple rule is, if it is good news, let your face express it: smile or show happiness. If it is bad news, look serious, worried, upset or fearful depending on the content and context. Get the face involved, because it is a million times more powerful as a communication tool, than whatever is on the screen behind.

Voice speed can be an indicator of confidence or terror. Most of us, when nervous, tend to speed up our speech allowing our ideas to rapidly begin to overtake each other. Pause is needed to allow the audience to process what they have just heard. Getting through the speech in the time allotted does not equal getting the message across.

We can also speak using our body. Our facial angle allows us to become inclusive and capture all of our audience, no matter where they are seated. Whether with people in the front, middle, back or sides of the room, the speaker makes eye contact to engage with all parts of the room.

Eye contact means actual engagement—looking an audience member in the eye and speaking to them for around six seconds. Less than that makes for a rather fleeting, perfunctory type of engagement. Locking onto their gaze for much longer starts to burn into their retina and becomes uncomfortable.

Our feet, funnily enough, are important when speaking. Pointing them straight ahead, using only our neck to swivel our head and engage the audience, projects confidence, credibility and solidity. Often, speakers are unconsciously facing their feet toward favouring one side of the room. They subsequently only engage that half, leaving the remainder of the audience in supreme neglect. Slouching, standing off balance or nervously striding about the stage may not project the professional image the speaker desires.

Our hands can be a dilemma, too. We either overemploy them so that, like the monotone voice, everything gets the same unbroken level of emphasis, or we don’t deploy them at all. Behind our back, resting on our hips, thrust deeply into trouser pockets or held protectively in front of our body are the usual suspects in the crime of neglect of our hands’ communication strength when speaking. Gestures are a powerful tool to emphasise the key points we want our audience to remember.

Being a good speaker is not the goal. Being a good person, who can speak convincingly, is the real goal. There are plenty of spivs, spinners, crooks, dodgy politicians, shifty chief executives and so on who are verbose, epitomising the brilliant Aussie gem: “someone who can talk under wet concrete with a mouth full of roofing nails”.

Leaders need their own voice to fully reach their audience, to persuade, to inspire, to be credible and to be memorable. You are the brand: what you say and how you say it matters. Be congruent, authentic and be you—but be the best possible you.