Is it possible to be a good leader without being a good communicator? Here, we explore the connection between leadership and communication.
At Bespoken, we are passionate about helping leaders improve professional communication skills. Over the past month, we’ve worked with leaders at AIG, LinkedIn and AOL, and in the fields of tech, healthcare and finance. We frequently help leaders at Columbia Business School find their voice and own it. Across the board, it’s impossible to separate good leadership from effective communication skills. Yet, leaders often lack solid communication skills. For others, it can be the one trait preventing them from rising to a leadership role.
In 2015, we contributed an article to Inc.com about leadership and presentation skills. Of course, how you present yourself as a leader is vital, but we believe that the ability to communicate effectively leads to true organizational growth and change.
Want to be a better leader? Communicate more effectively. Improving communication and presentation skills means changing lifelong behaviors. These changes don’t come overnight, but you will see an instant boost in communication skills by implementing these three tools:
Do you know that we spend 70-80% of our waking hours communicating? We spend 45% of that time listening and yet, the average listener only remembers 25% of what is said. Bad listening leads to mistakes and employee dissatisfaction. Practice active listening: Pay attention, look at the person, ask questions and visualize what they are saying. Not only will you be able to act on the information more efficiently, but when someone feels heard they become more emotionally invested and are more likely to do good work.
When someone needs your attention, give it to them. Even if your mind is racing with to-do’s, make yourself physically available by uncrossing your arms, standing (or sitting) up straight, and making eye contact. Bringing your whole self to a conversation will help you more clearly address the issue at hand and prevent other problems from arising.
Being deliberate and clear in your communication is key. Before a huddle or difficult conversation, really think about what you want to say. Articulate your goal for the conversation in one sentence, then jot down notes and practice it once or twice to be sure the words you choose accurately reflect your goals for the conversation. Remove any grey areas by recording yourself to make sure your words cannot be misinterpreted or taken the wrong way. Adding a minute or two on the front end can save hours of backpedaling on the back end.
Women in Obama’s administration developed a strategy called amplification to help each other speak up and be heard. Here’s how you can amplify your speech and amplify your reach.
Female staffers in the White House are practicing effective communication skills with a tool they call amplification, where they repeat key points made by other women in the room. According to Juliet Eilperin’s September 13th piece in The Washington Post, “This forced the men in the room to recognize the contribution—and denied them the chance to claim the idea as their own.” From the piece:
“We just started doing it, and made a purpose of doing it. It was an everyday thing,” said one former Obama aide who requested anonymity to speak frankly. Obama noticed, she and others said, and began calling more often on women and junior aides.
In Lean In: Women, Work and the Will to Lead, Sheryl Sandberg writes that “We hold ourselves back in ways both big and small, by lacking self-confidence, by not raising our hands, and by pulling back when we should be leaning in. We internalize the negative messages we get throughout our lives—the messages that say it’s wrong to be outspoken, aggressive, more powerful than men.” Sheryl’s “argument is that getting rid of these internal barriers is critical to gaining power.” Sandberg has since recognized how hard it is for single parents to lean in and it’s important to view the practice as a guiding star rather than a road map.
How will the world change when we see our voices as primary rather than secondary to men? How will the world change if the default voice belongs to a woman and not a man? As we enter this new era, how do we let go of conscious and unconscious behaviors that are no longer serving us?
Let’s not tell any woman what she should or shouldn’t do or say.Instead, let’s make sure every woman has the tools she needs to be intentional, aware and in control of what she does and says.
Many of us educated post-feminists are speaking up for the first time. We don’t want to admit it but we desperately want to be heard. It’s exciting and scary to do anything for the first time. Learning how to speak in public and articulating your thoughts, feelings and ideas can be terrifying. That’s why amplification put into practice is so inspiring. Women building executive presence need structures, techniques and safe spaces to develop these new behaviors.
Amplification is just one tool that can help us develop communication and presentation skills and hold ourselves and those around us accountable. Here’s some others to help amplify your speech and amplify your reach:
Even if your knees are shaking, maintaining eye contact can make you seem more confident which can make you feel more confident. That’s why Chris Anderson, Head of TED, says it should be the first priority when public speaking: “Great speakers find a way of making an early connection with their audience,” he writes. “It can be as simple as walking confidently on stage, looking around, making eye contact with two or three people, and smiling.” Making eye contact not only jumpstarts a connection with your audience but, when maintained, it makes you and your message more memorable.
What happens to your breath when you’re nervous, unprepared or both? It becomes shallow and many of us experience shortness of breath or “air hunger”. Do you begin speaking at full capacity, or do you exhale that strength and support before speaking? Practice square breathing ahead of time so you can speak with a fully supported voice when stakes are high. Not breathing deeply leads to habits we’re all guilty of (men too!)—vocal fry, uptalk and low volume to name a few. Slow, deep breathing also stimulates the parasympathetic reaction—which can have the effect of calming you down. Find more tips on deep breathing in our #BEprepared video series here.
A 2010 study in the journal Psychological Science notes that“women have a lower threshold for what constitutes offensive behavior,” so they may be more likely to apologize. This is not a female problem since men are guilty of it too, but it does stem from a lack of confidence and a lack of practice.
The first step to UNapolozing yourself is awareness. Many of us apologize all the time and do not even hear it. You don’t have to use the words “I’m sorry” to apologize—though plenty of us do. Filler-phrases like “kind of”, “just” and “I think” undermine our authority when used unintentionally. We physically make ourselves small and call our thoughts, ideas and feelings into question before they even leave our mouths.
So go ahead. Take up more space. Be heard and understood. Practice the art of public speaking. Communicate consciously. Try saying things affirmatively and with conviction. Download Just Not Sorry, a Gmail plugin that alerts you when you’ve undermined your authority in an email. Ask a trusted friend or colleague to be an outside eye as you develop your communication and presentation skills. Develop systems together, designed for your voices. Hire a public speaking trainer. Be kind to yourself first and foremost. If these behaviors stem from how hard we are on ourselves already, let’s not add to it! Overdo it at first and notice how the world around you starts to follow your lead. If it doesn’t feel exciting and scary, then maybe you’re not going far enough.
Inspired to help people own their voice and be heard, Bespoken was founded in 2014 by Leah Bonvissuto and Jackie Miller. Friends who met in acting school a decade before, Leah and Jackie channel years of professional theater experience into developing techniques to help people speak their story with power and precision.