The Leader's Voice

How to get it right

How to get it right

The best communicators don’t always make the best leaders.

Skills of oratory won’t hide in the long run the failure to devise the right strategy or the courage to stick to it when times get difficult.

But equally the best strategy won’t work unless those who have to deliver it understand what’s expected of them. Nor will an organisation get credit for achieving goals, no matter how difficult, unless the reason they are important has been spelt out. And just ask those companies which responded too late of the benefits of good communication in a crisis.

Getting this right takes time and effort. You have to work out the purpose of the communication and the response you want from those who read what you have written or hear what you are saying. You need to decide how you can best achieve it and frame your argument in as compelling way as possible.

It is always a challenge to retain a focus on the big picture and what really matters. It is all too easy to get drawn into the detail and find you have lost your audience on the way. The more you know, the harder it can be to avoid this trap. It is why an outside perspective can often help.

Finding the structure, tone and words to land your messages is also vital. The reader needs to be led logically and easily through what you are saying. The language should be clear and the tone authentic. It is not an artform but it is a skill. And, as with all skills, practice definitely helps. Verbal tricks such as alliteration and striking imagery help bring content to life but should not be over-used. Promising to fight your critics on the beaches is fine when facing a global threat to civilisation but over-the-top if complaining about council red tape. Remember your audience and the context.

Strengths in a case should be emphasised but the temptation to ignore or skate over weaknesses must be resisted. The likelihood is that you will, in the end, be forced to talk about them later without the opportunity of putting them in the context of your choosing. While all this matters for any communication, it is even more important in a speech whether at a town-hall meeting or a formal event. After all, the speech audience does not have the chance of re-reading a passage which is not clear. Few people including politicians enjoy speaking in public but this is no reason to pretend it is not going to happen. If business leaders saw the effort senior politicians, who have spent a career making speeches, and their teams put into deciding the argument, honing the words and, critically, rehearsing delivery they might make more time in their own diaries to do the same.

Audiences may not now expect speakers to have written their own speeches. They do, however, expect them to have had the courtesy to have read the draft in advance. Too often it can seem as if speaker and listeners are on a shared journey of discovery.

Even the most experienced politician makes sure before an important speech they find the time to read drafts aloud – often to their team – which helps identify passages which are out-of-place, muddled or repetitive and sentences which don’t work or are difficult to say. They mark their scripts, underlining words to emphasise or writing in where they need to pause.

It is true that some people have a natural advantage. Anyone watching the YouTube video of Shakira speaking at Harvard would think she was making the speech up as she went along, so relaxed and conversational was her performance. She wasn’t. Pretty much every word was scripted – with a big contribution from her – but that’s the confidence a lifetime of performing gives you.

Tony Blair had the ability to make the most pedestrian script come alive, for which some of us remain very grateful. But he also took an extremely hands-on role in the development and writing of his main speeches. With good communication now so integral to good leadership, it is an example everyone should follow.