The Formula for Communicating Like a Leader

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May 27, 2013

Abraham Lincoln. Bill Clinton. Ronald Reagan. Winston Churchill. Menachem Begin. Hillary Clinton. John F. Kennedy. Oprah Winfrey. Margaret Thatcher.

Arguably, these are the names of some of the greatest leaders in history, and they all share a common thread – they all used, in some part, acting techniques or acting teachers to help them perfect how they said what they said when they communicated with their audiences.

Why is delivery important? Because knowing what to say is one thing, but how you say it can make or break a deal, strengthen or jeopardize a relationship or motivate or turn off an employee; and not just in your voice, but also with your whole body – gestures, posture, eye contact, facial expressions, etc.

Matching body language to your message

We’re notoriously good at reading body language. Experts estimate it takes seven seconds to make a first impression.

Experts also say we make 11 judgments in those seven seconds, on average, and often decide if we’re buying what they’re saying or not in that time. If what we’re saying and how we’re saying it is incongruent (sending mixed messages), the first thing our audience looks at is our body language, according to UCLA Professor Albert Mehrabian’s landmark study of nonverbal communication.

The audience is looking to you to determine how they should feel about your message and communication. If you’re bored, so is the audience. If you’re nervous, the audience is nervous for you. If you don’t buy it, they won’t either. Conversely, if you’re genuinely excited, they’re more likely to be excited.

So how do you make sure your vocal dynamics, body language and gestures match what you’re saying? By using a secret weapon that actors and great communicators have used for centuries – intention and objective. Objective is what you want your audience to do and intention is a strong, one-word verb (excite, motivate, challenge, etc.) that informs how you deliver that message to achieve that objective.

To illustrate, fill in this sentence every time you communicate:

I want to [intention] my audience so my audience will [objective].

I want to motivate my team so my team will produce more sales.

I want to engage my team so they will focus rather than worry about layoffs.

I want to excite my CFO so she will sign off on my 2014 budget.

Here’s a three-step process for influential communication that breaks down intention and objective even further.

1. Analyze your audience

  • Who are you talking to?
  • How do they feel about your content?
  • How do they feel about you?
  • What do they want?
  • What benefit can you provide?

Answering those questions will let you know where you stand with your audience and what obstacles you need to overcome.

2. Understand the reactions you want to produce

What do you want them to do after receiving your message? How do you want them to feel?

Weather forecasters never just tell us about the weather; they tell us what to do – bundle up, wear sunscreen, drink plenty of water, bring an umbrella, etc. The Same goes for leaders – vote for me, follow procedures, keep doing what you’re doing, etc.

3. Modify your delivery to achieve those reactions

Use strong intentions to color how you deliver your messages, and let them inform your body language, vocal dynamics and gestures. You may have to change how you say what you say to reach your objective, but we should be able to see those changes through intention cues – the micro or macro body expressions that let us know how you feel and how we should feel in return.

For example, if you’re letting someone go and you’re empathizing with them, they might see it in your eyes (sadness), gestures (extend a hand to their shoulder) and hear it in your vocal dynamics (soft but firm). If you’re promoting someone, they may see it in your face (big smile), gestures (handshake and pat on the back) and vocal dynamics (excitement, enthusiasm).

This method works for presentations and in social settings, work meetings, conversations, or any other communication. The keys are making sure you know your objective – what you want your audience to do – and using a strong intention behind your message so that your words, voice and body language support it.

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