Why and How Leaders Speak

Christopher Witt —  January 15, 2014

Leaders SpeakWhy do Leaders Speak?

1. Leaders speak to influence and inspire audiences.
Leaders aren’t primarily concerned with communicating information. They speak to promote a vision, a direction, or a passion. They want to change not just what people know, but how people think and feel and act.

2. Leaders speak when a lot is at stake.
In times of crisis, change, or opportunity — when expectations are high and the consequences may be momentous — people turn to leaders for words of insight, reassurance, or direction. Leaders speak to make a difference, and unsettled times are when their words can have the greatest impact.

3. Leaders speak as representatives of their organizations.
Leaders have to be themselves at all times and yet,when they speak, they speak not for themselves, but for their organizations. They are, in many people’s minds, the face and the soul of the organization.

4. Leaders speak all the time.
Leaders give formal or informal presentation several times a week, if not more often. They speak to the board of directors, to executives, to company-wide gatherings, to the general public, to associations and service clubs, to funding sources, to major clients and potential customers.

5. Leaders speak because it’s their job.
Giving speeches — planned or impromptu, in small gatherings or in front of huge audiences — is one of the most important responsibilities of a leader, and real leaders take it on as a challenge and an opportunity. 

How do Leaders Speak?

Leaders make use of the four elements of a great speech, as defined by Demosthenes, the father of Greek oratory.

1. A Great Person
You don’t have to be president of the United States or even the president of your company. But you do have to be the best you you can be, because you are the message. Who you are — your character, personality, values, experience, outlook — shapes how people hear and respond to what you say.

As long as your intent is to be of service to your audience and to your message, don’t be shy:

  • Take center stage. Don’t cede the stage to your slides. (Don’t use them at all, unless you really have to.) And don’t stand off to the side in the darkness. Act as if you want people to look at you and to listen to your words.
  • Tell stories. Audiences love stories, and the stories you tell — especially if they’re from your own experience — allow audiences to know a little more about you and why they should listen to you.
  • Shun objectivity. Your speech isn’t an unbiased account of how things are. It’s your deeply felt conviction about how things should be. Put yourself on the line.
  • Talk to, not at, your audience. The best way for you to be human is to treat others as human. Don’t deliver a speech to them. Don’t speak at them. Speak with them, as if you’re having a conversation with people you care about.

2. A Noteworthy Event
As a leader, its your responsibility to make not only the speech but the entire event a success. If the event bombs, no one will remember how well you spoke or even what you said.

Before agreeing to speak, find out as much about the event as possible:

  • Who is hosting it? attending it? speaking at it?
  • What is the nature of the event — a convention, workshop, kickoff rally, celebration, or blow-off-steam conclave?
  • When is the event and how long will it be? And when is your speech within the event?
  • Where is the venue? Where is the stage, the podium, the optimal place to stand and speak?
  • Why is the group gathering at this time and place? What is the agenda? 

3. A Compelling Message
A compelling message is nothing more — and nothing less — than an idea with the power to change people’s lives, if only in a small way, expressed in the clearest, most compelling words.

Doc Pomus — the legendary songwriter who created “A Teenager in Love,” “Suspicion,” and “Save the Last Dance for Me” — was asked how to write a hit song, He answered, “Find the shortest distance between your insides and a pencil.” Leaders find the shortest distance between their insides and an audience’s ears by:

  • Developing one — and only one — idea per speech.
  • Clarifying the idea and why it matters.
  • Using powerful words (as opposed to jargon or “business speak”) and images.
  • Telling stories.
  • Being brief. If you need to speak longer than 20 minutes, you should write a book instead.

4. A Masterful Delivery
A masterful delivery is more than technique (how you look and sound in front of an audience). It’s really about projecting yourself — your authentic self — in the mos powerful way possible.

To improve your delivery without sounding — or feeling — like you’re giving a stage performance, try doing these things:

  • Be yourself. You can learn from others, but don’t imitate anyone else, even speakers you admire.
  • Be bigger and louder. When you’re in front of an audience, use the same gestures you normally do, only exaggerate them. And speak louder. It’s amazing how increasing your volume almost always increases your voice’s liveliness and power.
  • Be passionate. Don’t speak about something you don’t care about. And if you care about it, show it and make it personal. 
  • Be dramatic. Most business speakers hold themselves back out of fear that they’ll be “too much.” In my experience, very few people need to work about going over the top. Throw yourself into you speech as if you weren’t afraid or as if you won’t let your fear hold you back.

These ideas comes from my book, Real Leaders Don’t Do PowerPoint: How to Sell Yourself and Your Ideas

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Christopher Witt

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Chris Witt was born in Los Angeles, California. He currently lives in San Diego. He works as a speech and presentations consultant, an executive speech coach, and an orals coach.