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How to speak like a leader: Five Do’s and Five Don’ts

7 September 2015

There has been a fundamental shift in leadership style over the last 15 years. The old ‘command and control’ leader is out-dated and totally unacceptable to Generation Z and the Millennials. People under the age of around 25 perceive the old order leadership style to be dictatorial, un-emotional and frankly ridiculous in today’s world.

Being a strong leader doesn't simply mean telling people what to do. It means listening, coaching, and empowering people in a way that inspires them to grow.  So how can today’s leaders truly connect with every audience, every time?

Here are my five Do’s and Don’ts for speaking like a leader. 

Five Do’s

1. Be yourself

This starts with using your own voice. Try to sound like you usually do when you're talking to your friends and family. Speak with a soft, relaxed tone and avoid over-projecting or sounding like a stern teacher. If you have a microphone, let it do the work for you.

Use words you would normally use. Don’t be tempted to use formal words, because they'll make you sound and feel stiff. "It’s great to see you here" is so much better than, "It’s a great pleasure to welcome you here on this auspicious occasion". 

Tip: Here’s a great exercise to relax your voice before you speak. Stand and face a wall. Place both hands on the wall about shoulder height and push really hard, as if you’re trying to push the wall a couple of metres in the direction you’re pushing. After pushing, stand normally and try speaking out loud. See how much more relaxed and emotionally connected your voice sounds.

2. Be present

Your audience does not want to feel like you’ve given the same talk a hundred times before. Keep it spontaneous. Change the order in which you say things. Keep yourself on your toes. If you stay present, so will your audience. 

An actor playing Hamlet and saying the famous lines, "To be or not to be?" has to imagine it’s the first time he has ever said those words. He can’t say, "To be or not to be? That is the question. In fact, it’s the same question I asked myself at the matinée this afternoon!". 

3. Start well

To grab your audience right from the start, try to capture your key message in the first sentence. This could be used in one of four classic openers:

  1. Ask a question, e.g. "Have you ever found X to be a problem?"
  2. Offer a benefit or solution, e.g. "We all know X is a problem – well, I’d like to offer a solution."
  3. Shock the audience, e.g. "If we don’t find a solution to X, we’re in deep trouble."
  4. Start in the middle of a story, e.g. "So there I was, just 21 years old, when …"

4. Practice

People often say they don’t have time to prepare and they feel more relaxed if they ‘wing it’ - but this is no excuse. Try speaking your words out loud. This will flag up any difficult words you might stumble on. Time yourself and then aim for just under your allotted time. 

5. Speak with energy, clarity and humanity

To speak in an engaging fashion, we need about 10%  more energy than usual – any more and we could come across like a game show host. We need clarity in our argument and in our delivery. And, most importantly, we need to speak with humanity. It is this human tone, in our voice and our choice of words, that will make us engaging and believeable.

Five Don'ts

1. Don’t make it all about you

Always try to speak with equal status; sound pompous at your peril! Make everything relevant for your audience. If, for example, if you were speaking to a room full of doctors, you could add, "Of course, as doctors you already know …" to make it feel relevant to them and make them feel special.

Remember: it’s not about you. It’s always about the audience.

2. Don't’ treat the audience as one mass

It’s tempting to look above the audience’s heads or 'de-focus' when speaking to a group, but the secret of eye contact is to hold one thought with one person and one thought with another. In a larger hall, where you can’t actually see everyone clearly, direct one thought to one area of the room, and one thought to another. By the end, everyone will feel that you’ve been talking specifically to them.

3. Don't avoid the elephant in the room

If you suspect the audience might not be on your side and hold certain prejudices, it’s usually better to address this head on rather than trying to hide it away under the carpet. 

4.  Don’t take yourself too seriously

When we listen to someone who takes themselves too seriously, we can’t wait for them to slip on the proverbial banana skin. As Billy Connolly said, "Never trust a man who, when left alone in a room with a tea cosy, doesn't try it on". A little self-deprecating humour goes a long way. 

5. Don’t rush

Wait two seconds before you speak. If you start speaking too quickly, it will look like you just want to get it over with. Giving yourself those two seconds will look like you are comfortable standing there and will give you an impressive natural authority. 

Before you speak, try this simple breathing technique: breathe in through your nose slowly for a count of three. Then breathe out for a count of three, and repeat this three times. This should take a total of 18 seconds. In that time you can lower your heart rate and you will feel calmer. And the good thing with this breathing exercise is that no-one can see you doing it!

The worst thing you can do while speaking is looking like you don’t care. Remember, a spark of passion and a clear story will go a long way.

There are three fundamental things we need when speaking in public: Energy, Clarity and Humanity. If we have all three, we will come across as focused, authentic and charismatic. And we will connect with our audience as well.

To find out more improving public speaking and communication skills, email Robin@Zone2.co.uk, telephone 07977 540467, or visit  www.zone2.co.uk

Robin Kermode is the author of Speak So Your Audience Will Listen - a practical guide for anyone who has to speak to another human being.

Robin Kermode
Robin Kermode
Communication coach

Robin Kermode is a popular keynote speaker and one of Europe’s leading communication coaches. He is the founder of Zone2, a professional training and coaching consultancy: www.zone2.co.uk.