Seven deadly speaking sins

If you want to be an effective leader, you need to talk like one, JIM GRAY writes. Here are his oratorical qualities to strive for

Friday, November 3, 2006
in the Globe and Mail

It was a painful 32 seconds.

U.S. Republican Jeanine Pirro was officially declaring her candidacy for the New York Senate seat held by Hillary Clinton in August, 2005. But as she rolled through her announcement speech, Ms. Pirro stumbled badly.

"Hillary Clinton," she said, and then abruptly stopped. "I'm sorry," Ms. Pirro muttered, searching through her notes as onlookers shifted uncomfortably in their seats and television cameras recorded every mute, excruciating moment.

"Do you have page 10?" Ms. Pirro asked her staff in a voice that everyone present could easily hear. "Who's got . . .?"

Half a minute after losing her way, she resumed her formal remarks.

It was a rocky start to a campaign that just got worse. Plagued by a seeming lack of focus and brutal media coverage, Ms. Pirro withdrew from the Senate race four months later. (She's now running for New York State attorney-general in next Tuesday's election.)

The oratorical gaffe wasn't solely responsible for the demise of Ms. Pirro's Senate aspirations, but it did communicate two influential, negative messages -- that she was easily flustered, and incapable of speaking about her opponent without a script.

The ability to speak effectively has always been a big indicator of leadership. If you want to be a leader, you need to speak like one.

Ms. Pirro missed the mark by failing to employ the first and most important of seven keys used by leaders who successfully engage their listeners, time after time.

Here are the keys that define how leaders speak, and set them apart.

Be prepared

Preparation has more to do than simply knowing your narrative and your audience. It means being psychologically ready for virtually any occurrence, from an open challenge conveyed by an irate listener to speaking time that's cut short -- to a speech page that goes missing.

Leaders respond to such circumstances with confidence and poise, and not a hint of irritation. They know that observers will form an immediate opinion of them, based on their reaction. They also know that, in many ways, a presentation is much like a relationship: You gain or lose the most respect in the tough times, not the good times.

Be certain

Audiences today -- employees, customers, shareholders, voters and the media -- are demanding and critical. They want leaders who address them with clarity and self-assurance. Listeners can quickly tell whether presenters are confident in their material. Self-doubt, ambiguity and equivocation are killers; they'll flatten your credibility and influence. (After all, if you're not sure, why should anyone else be?) With good news or bad, a forceful declaration right out of the box communicates the fact that you're certain about your position and, by extension, yourself.

Be authentic

What audiences want, increasingly, is authenticity -- a presenter's direct, sincerely expressed insights, free of patter and spin. When leaders reveal themselves, acknowledging the reasons for their failures as well as their successes, listeners go rapt. Openness enhances rather than undermines credibility, an outcome based on the age-old principle that, the more power you relinquish, the more power you acquire. And the more memorable you become.

Be passionate

A clip from a 1980 speech by Pierre Trudeau, leading the fight against Quebec independence, reveals a passion that's palpable. "These people in Quebec and in Canada," he told his audience, his eyes burning, "want to split it up, they want to take it away from their children, they want to break it down. No! That's our answer."

When participants at presentation skills workshops are asked what makes for a great speech, they invariably respond: passion. You can have the best presentation ever crafted, but, if you don't have passion, you have nothing.

Be in the moment

Leaders take their time. They start slowly, building a relationship with their audience. They pause when appropriate, never fearing silence. They accentuate the key words that listeners will require for full comprehension of their story. They speak as if they have all the time in the world, and as if there's no other place they'd rather be. Audiences can tell when you're not fully engaged, not really "with them." So be there, in the moment.

Be brief

Blaise Pascal, the 17th-century French mathematician and philosopher, expressed it best when he wrote: "I have made this letter longer than usual, because I lack the time to make it short." Less is more. The best communication is invariably the least. Leaders demonstrate the discipline to speak within their allotted time. To do otherwise would be unprofessional and rude.

Be committed

Few people are born presenters. For the vast majority, it takes a great deal of time, rehearsal and resilience -- the capacity to quickly recover from those inevitable early (and sometimes later) failures -- to speak with excellence consistently. It's a development process that never really ends. Nor should it.

To get better, you'll need gigs. To generate them, join a speakers club, or start one. To maximize your presentation experiences, bring out the mini-DVD camera and record yourself. It's an invaluable process for revealing those deficiencies of content and delivery that detract from the real "you" -- and prevent you from speaking like a leader.

Jim Gray is a media strategist and communication skills coach in Toronto.

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