Words That Speak as Loud as Actions

Good communication skills are an essential part of effective leadership. Done well, a speech can motivate, engage and, most importantly, inspire action, says Dr Juan Carlos Pastor.

Corporate leaders don’t need to reach the oratorical heights of a Martin Luther King or Barack Obama to influence their teams, but they should at least embrace the following five principles:

Create trust through authenticity. Building trust, expressing moral conviction, telling the truth, and even admitting mistakes helps you develop the credibility that audiences seek. Remember, they will gauge your authenticity from the tiniest and briefest of facial expressions. Although Groucho Marx once quipped, ‘Sincerity is the key to success: once you can fake that you’ve got it made,’ it is also true that your body language can understate your true commitment to a cause. As Jonathan Freeman, a professor of psychology at Goldsmith’s College, London, observes, a neutral face with a slightly upturned mouth and eyebrows suggest greater trustworthiness. So check in a mirror how you come across before making that important speech.

Share personal stories. People follow leaders who they feel they can identify with on a personal level. When one’s experiences exemplify values and characteristics such as survival, hope or success, these stories can inspire team members too. Don’t be afraid to share personal anecdotes that might help you to become a role model. Charles Schwab, one of Wall Street’s most trusted and respected CEOs, for example, has been open about his dyslexia which allowed him not only to create the right team around him but also inspire others by speaking from the heart rather than struggling through a written script.

Use rhetorical devices. Leadership researcher John Antonakis identifies 12 rhetorical devices that can elevate a speaker and his message. These include the use of metaphor, repetition, similes and analogies, rhetorical questions, statements that resonate with local sentiments, and the setting of hard goals. He estimates that using these devices can improve a speaker’s leadership ratings by around 60%.

Help people to think differently. Even the best communicator also has to inspire his listeners to action. This can be done by helping them define a problem in new ways and then propose alternative solutions. In his 1997 speech at Macworld Boston, the late Steve Jobs urged Apple employees not to focus on beating an increasingly dominant Microsoft but on making Apple great on its own terms. By reframing Apple’s challenge, he paved the way for the company’s famous turnaround.

Deploy cues to action. In 1965, psychologist Howard Leventhal explored ways to convince Yale university students to get a tetanus vaccine from the local health care centre. He prepared two booklets: one explaining the dangers of tetanus, which included graphic details and pictures; the other setting out the benefits in basic terms while toning down the dangers. Neither worked. But then Leventhal circled the health care centre location on a campus map, and vaccination rate rose by one third. The new map included the cue to action. Effective leaders need to add similar, simple cues to jump-start action.