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Book review: Speaking as a Leader

An edited version of this review ran in the April 9 edition of The Hamilton Spectator.

Speaking as a Leader: How to Lead Every Time You Speak

By Judith Humphrey

John Wiley & Sons Canada Ltd.

$27.95

I went to a conference in Washington last month to learn how to write better speeches.

As an added bonus, I got a two-day master class in how to give a great speech. The conference featured keynotes by three seasoned speechwriters who proved they’re as good on the podium as they are with a pen (kudos to Mark Schumann, Justina Chen and Terry Edmonds — the first African American to serve as a presidential speechwriter).

All three made an immediate and sustained connection with the audience. They were absolutely passionate about the craft of speechwriting. Their speeches were well-rehearsed conversations that didn’t feel scripted or staged. They told stories and shared lessons learned with a healthy mix of self-deprecating humour.

Just as impressive is what these speakers didn’t do.  They didn’t inflict death by PowerPoint. They didn’t bore us and bury us in a data dump. They didn’t limit themselves to telling us what they knew. They told with us what they believed.

And perhaps most important of all, they knew they were on stage as much to inspire as to inform.

In short, these keynote speakers communicated like leaders.

“The most effective leaders use every speaking opportunity to influence and inspire,” says author Judith Humphrey, who’s also the founder and president of an executive communications firm. “They make every formal speech, presentation, phone call, or elevator conversation a leadership opportunity. They realize that their power lies less in any title they hold than in their ability to move others. They realize that the true task of a leader is to create believers.”

Great leaders stick to a script, says Humphrey.  That script leads off with an introduction that includes a grabber, subject, message and structural statement. 

To grab the attention of your audience, share a story, quote or interesting fact or stat. Then state the subject. What do you want to talk about?  The message spells out where you stand on the topic in a single, simple sentence.  The introduction closes with a structural statement that previews how you’ll make your case and prove your point.

The introduction is followed by the body of your script.  Here’s where you set out your arguments. You can run through three key points. Talk about the challenge and then offer your solution. Look at the present and preview what the future could hold.

The leader’s script ends with a two-part conclusion. You restate your message and then issue a call to action. What do you want people to do next?

Humphrey says the script will help transform your audience into followers, and your speaking into an act of leadership.

Along with sticking to a script, great leaders speak with conviction. They’re passionate, authentic, courageous and honest in their communications.  They use small and simple words to sell big ideas.

Great leaders look to the positive, focusing on solutions rather than problems. “Negatives bring people down, rather than lifting them up. If you want to lead when you speak, stay on the high ground.”

Great leaders listen physically, mentally and emotionally to secure a lifeline to their audience. “You must understand precisely what concerns and motivates your listeners or they will never follow you. You must get inside the minds of your audience and shape what you say so that it reaches them.”

Great leaders don’t paste jokes onto the front end of their communications. “Great speeches, presentations and meeting comments are not dull. They are enlivened with wit, quotations and anecdotes. But they do not rely on canned humour or tired jokes.” Count on at least someone in the audience taking offense or not getting your humour. And few of us have the comedic timing to pull off a joke.

Great leaders also recognize that they’re the best visual. They want their audience to watch and listen without distraction. The danger with PowerPoint – even when it’s a handful of slick slides with killer graphics – is that you divide your audience’s attention. Minds can wander and never return.

“When speakers use visuals, they create competition for the audience’s attention. The audience must divide its focus looking at the visual and listening to you. Your visuals get star billing; what you are saying finishes a distant second in the audience’s mind.”

Humphrey’s point was underscored at the speechwriters’ conference. One of the presenters talked about the wonders of using video in speeches. But technical snafus derailed the video-heavy presentation, rattled the speaker and lost the audience. While that’s all I can remember from that session, I have no trouble recalling the big ideas, inspiring words and passion from the trio of keynote speakers who showed how it’s done.

@jayrobb works in Hamilton and dreams of living in Georgetown.

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