Book review: How Leaders Speak: Essential Rules for Engaging and Inspiring Others

How Leaders Speak: Essential Rules for Engaging and Inspiring Others

By Jim Gray

Dundurn Press


In this age of rapidly shrinking attention spans and constant distractions, how do you get an audience to sit through your speech and pay attention from start to finish?

Do you treat them like children and tell them to put away their Blackberries and iPhones?

Do you treat them like idiots and remind them to set their phones to vibrate and mute their Lady Gaga and Hockey Night in Canada ringtones?

Do you single out and publicly humiliate the first person you catch texting while you’re talking?

Good luck with that.

At best, your audience will ignore you.

At worst, they’ll turn against you. And there’s nothing like staring out at a sea of angry faces who would love nothing more than for you to stumble and screw up your speech and make a fool of yourself at the lectern.

So here’s a better idea for getting an audience to pay attention.

Don’t be boring.

Work hard to earn and hold your audience’s undivided attention. Have something to say and know how to say it. Make it all about them.

To prove the point, go to It’s website that archives lectures and presentations from the annual Technology, Entertainment, Design conferences. These conferences are the World Cup, Stanley Cup, World Series and Superbowl of public speaking.

Do a keyword search on creativity expert Sir Ken Robinson. Watch both of Robinson’s talks on the need to revolutionize education. Each speech runs about 16 minutes.

Odds are, you’ll temporarily lose your Crackberry addiction. You won’t steal a look at your email and won’t feel compelled to fire off a quick message while Robinson’s videos are playing. Instead, you’ll give Robinson your full and undivided attention. The stories he tells will connect at an emotional level.  You might even choke up. Maybe you’ll watch the videos again and you’ll definitely tell friends, family and coworkers to check them out. And Robinson’s key messages will stay with you.

Consider this your crash course in how to stand and deliver. Make these videos your benchmark and your gold standard for public speaking. Be like Sir Ken and your audience will love you for it. You’ll have us at hello.

“The ability to speak convincingly to others – to compel them – has to rank as one of the most important skills in business and life,” says Toronto-based author and communication skills coach Jim Gray.

“It’s the mark of a true leader. For many who aspire to leadership, it’s the one proficiency they lack. For many who occupy positions of leadership, it’s the one missing element that prevents them from fully realizing all that they can be.”

The good news is that you too can find that element. According to Gray, there are five keys to speaking like a leader.

Preparation. “Skilled presenters spend a great deal of time thinking about who their listeners are, what those listeners know and what they need to know in order to respond positively to the message being delivered.” Find that key insight or nugget of information that makes you a speaker with the answers.

Certainty. Realize that you have about 90 seconds to forge a connection and bond with your audience. “Maximize the odds that they’ll like and respect you. Start by speaking slowly.” It’s a surefire way to ease what Gray calls the ambient tension in the room, as the audience worries that you’ll tank and they’ll be subjected to seemingly endless minutes of awkward and painful discourse.

Passion. All great speakers have it. They speak it and the audience feels it. “You can have the best presentation ever crafted, but if you don’t have passion, you have nothing,” says Gray.

Engagement. Connect with your audience. Make your speech all about them. In any speech, “you” is the magic word. And if you want to really engage your audience, master the art of eye contact. 

And commitment. Start communicating with excellence in every situation, whether you’re in front of an audience of one or 100.  And become an expert at communicating across generations so you can connect with Boomers, Gen Xers and Millennials who all see the world in slightly different ways.

Above all, avoid the cardinal sin of overspeaking. When you run over your allotted time, Gray says you’re telling the audience that you’re more important than them, so they should just sit back and listen to the genius that is you.  And it’s usually lousy speakers who overstay their welcome, clueless and insensitive to their disconnected audience.

“Overspeaking drains time, reputations and an audience’s patience,”says Gray. Avoid it at all costs.

And if you don’t think you can get your big idea across in under 16 minutes, watch Sir Ken Robinson again and give Gray’s book a thorough read.  You’ll speak and we’ll follow.

Jay Robb works and lives in Hamilton and blogs at


Published by

Jay Robb

I've reviewed more than 500 business books for the Hamilton Spectator since 1999 and worked in public relations since 1993.

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