When I was at university, one of my lecturers was a man born to genius. He had won just about every award there was – and had medals strewn about his study like discarded tinsel. He was, in short, a very learned man. There was only one problem: the man was also a terrible communicator. For us students, the year turned into an increasingly brazen competition of creative excuses to give his class a miss.
The reason for our truancy was simple. This powerful mind just couldn’t communicate his ideas. He was a great thinker, but a really lousy speaker. Those pristine ideas roaming the confines of his head came out like the garbled mumblings of a dunce when he took the lectern.
The lesson here – great minds are sometimes bad communicators – and that hurts their career, and reduces their effectiveness.
Now let’s translate that to an organizational context. First, a pithy aphorism – an organization without leadership is a rudderless ship. It’s a packed car careening around the road. Everybody knows that. But now, let’s talk about organisations that have very clever leaders who can’t communicate. The result is much the same. There’s no point having great ideas if you can’t sell them.
At a time when mentoring in leadership is becoming ever more important (consider the role of incubators in grooming entrepreneurs, or the Uber CEO Travis Kalanick admitting that he needs coaching after a disastrous encounter with one of his Uber drivers), the ability to communicate well is still overlooked.
Organisations are championing the Executive MBA as a fast track to career development. They send leaders to boot camps and “ideation retreats.” But why not push them into intensive workshops with public speaking experts or professional MCs?
Leadership isn’t just about ideas. It’s also about communicating them. Effective leadership galvanises people. It helps retain staff members. A leader with good communication skills serves as a font for organisational culture – by constantly reinforcing company values through communication.
They say leaders are born, not made. Wrong. The qualities and skills for effective leadership can be learnt. The ability to communicate clearly is just a skill – and gets better with practice.
So let’s get to the heart of the matter. What points should a leader to communicate well keep in mind? Here’s a blueprint.
I’ve done over 150 events for some of the Middle East’s largest brands. And I’ve realised along the way that there’s no substitute for preparation. Know what separates a confident speaker from one who seems unsure? That’s right – preparation.
Remember that confidence while speaking to crowds isn’t an innate skill. It’s not genetic. It doesn’t depend on where you were born, or how. It’s a science that’s learnt. And it’s built on preparation. If you know your message backwards, and have practiced different ways of delivering it, you’ll naturally appear confident.
As a leader, the one thing you can do to boost your communication is to prepare your talking points. Find out what you want to say. And then practice the best way of saying it. If you know your message and have practiced how to deliver it, you’ll automatically come across as confident.
2. Body language
You’ll constantly hear talk about charismatic leaders, or charismatic speakers. And research shows that charisma is linked to success.
Talk to any experienced speaker or reputed freelance MC and presenter, and they’ll tell you that charisma certainly helps with public speaking and leadership. For one, you’re given stronger support, both on stage and off. People tend to paint you in a positive light, and are more inclined to forgive mistakes when they like you.
More importantly still for leaders, charisma helps to command attention, even from people whom you don’t yet know. Charisma – that elusive thing – encourages people to listen and respond.
But like confidence, charisma isn’t something you’re necessarily born with. True, some people have an easier time being liked than others. But charisma starts with body language and tiny positive behavioural tics. And these can certainly be worked on, and refined.
Often, how we say something is as important as what we say. The messages coming from our body are as important as the words coming from our mouths. The trick is to ensure that your body language isn’t sabotaging your message.
An example: people who practice open body language are seen as better speakers. They invite people in – by not crossing their arms while speaking, for instance. Or by using welcoming gestures. And by looking at people while speaking to them.
All these bodily cues can have a distinct impact on a leader’s charisma quotient. The difference can be as simple as that of a firm clasp of the hand versus a limp handshake.
3. Creating the connection
This is a skill common to the most effective leaders and the best communicators. Good speakers know how to establish a connection with audiences. They know how to work the crowd, and get audiences interested in what they have to say.
The easiest way to get people interested in you is to be interested in people. If you know their stories, understand their interests, and have an idea of their personalities, you can find common ground. Once that common ground is established, you’ve humanised yourself in your audience’s eyes. And from there, getting your message across is easy.
Good speakers also deliberately elicit responses from their audiences –to make sure people are paying attention, and that the entire process isn’t just a monologue. Good communicators can ask their audience to raise their hands to take a snap poll, or ask questions. Both methods are good for breaking the monotony and getting audiences interested.
Genuine connections build trust, which then creates loyalty. And from loyalty, a rock-solid commitment forms. This chain of positive reactions is created by a simple starting point – speaking well and communicating effectively.
So what’s the bottom line here?
Simply put, public speaking – or at the very least speaking effectively in public – is a major part of leadership. And the good news is it can be learnt. There are coaching or mentoring programmes that interested individuals can sign up for.
A good programme will first break down the fundamentals of public speaking and then provide exercises to work each skill point.
So if you’re interested in improving as a leader, learning to speak effectively and comfortably in public, and to large crowds, is definitely a skill you should invest in. It’s not terribly difficult, and it offers almost instant rewards as your teams respond better to your ideas.