Leaders Aren’t Like Other People

Leaders aren’t like other people—at least not when it comes to giving speeches. Other people try to get out of giving a speech anyway they can. They put off preparing for it until the last minute, then fire up PowerPoint, and create slides that are just like the slides they’ve seen every other presenter use. They happily stand in the dark, cede center stage to a screen on which they project those slides, and, more often than not, read them word for word to audiences who furtively check their phones and PDAs. Other people are relieved simply to get through a presentation without embarrassing themselves.

But if you’re a leader, you must look and sound like a leader in every speech you give. There’s too much riding on your performance—your prestige, your ability to command people’s attention and support, the success of your project or your organization—to settle for being average. But leaders aren’t like normal people—at least not when it comes to giving speeches.

When Do Leaders Speak?

Leaders speak when a lot is at stake.

In times of crisis, change, or opportunity—when expectations are high and the consequences may be momentous—that’s when people turn to leaders for words of insight, reassurance, or direction. After a national tragedy, for instance, the country waits for the President to speak. (Reagan’s speech on the evening of the space shuttle Challenger disaster—“We will never forget them, nor the last time we saw them, as they prepared for their journey and waved goodbye and ‘slipped the surly bonds of earth’ to ‘touch the face of God.’”—helped comfort a stunned nation.) When a company releases a new product, who better to herald it than the leader? And following an acquisition, anxious employees don’t know where they stand until they hear the CEO’s plans … from the CEO’s mouth.

Leaders speak to make a difference, and unsettled times are when their words can have the greatest impact.

An Organization’s Success

Here’s the paradox: Leaders have to be themselves at all times and yet, when they speak, they speak not for themselves, but for their organizations. Inexperienced or ineffective leaders sometimes forget this. They make off-hand remarks in public settings or spontaneous asides from the podium, and then they’re surprised when people take their comments as policy. But real leaders know that audiences take their words seriously, much more seriously than they take the words of other people. And leaders want their words to be taken seriously.

The success of any organization—whether it’s a multinational corporation, a nonprofit, a fledgling start-up, a department, a one-person operation—depends on its leader’s persuasiveness. Similarly, any project—a launch, a pr campaign, an oral proposal for a large contract—is aided or hobbled by its leader’s ability to make the case for a new direction.

A Compelling Message

A compelling message is nothing more—and nothing less—than an idea that has the power to change people’s lives expressed in the clearest, most forceful words. It takes diligent preparation. There’s no shortcut. Leaders who stand in front of an audience and wing it don’t get respect and don’t deserve it.

Doc Pomus, the legendary songwriter who created “Teenager in Love,” “Suspicion,” and “Save the Last Dance for Me,” was once asked how to write a hit song. He answered, “Find the shortest distance between your insides and a pencil.” He could have said the same thing about creating a compelling message. Leaders find the shortest distance between their insides and an audience’s ears.

Leaders Are the Message

Who you are is inseparable from what you communicate. I don’t just mean that your actions speak louder than your words. Of course they do. I mean that your character—who you are, what you’ve done, what you value—shapes the message your listeners hear.

Leaders adapt what they say—changing emphasis here and there, substituting examples or stories when appropriate—to better address the needs and concerns of different audiences. But they shouldn’t change themselves or try to become someone else.

To Communicate a Vision

Leaders have a vision or a dream—a compelling image of a better future. And they speak tirelessly, relentlessly—some would say fanatically—to make their audiences see what they see. That requires igniting the audience’s imagination, something that PowerPoint fails to do.

To Inspire an Audience

Military leaders before a battle, political leaders in time of crisis, coaches during halftime, preachers all the time—they know that what people often need is not more instruction, but more inspiration, not more “how to,” but more “you can.” And successful business leaders know it, too.