MT Expert's Ten Top Tips: Communicate like a leader

Great leaders also tend to be great communicators. What can we learn from them?

Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

In the old days, the CEO could get away with hiding in his corner office on the seventh floor, an invisible presence ruling via delegation and diktats. But not any more; the modern corporate leader is expected to be a visible presence, with ever more channels available to communicate with the lower orders. So how can you make sure you sound like a leader in all your interactions? MT asked Neil Taylor of business language consultancy The Writer for his top tips.

1. Speak like a human
People like working for people, not corporate robots. So cut the MBA buzzwords and strategy speak. If when you say ‘operational excellence’ what you really mean is ‘doing everyday things better’, say that instead. You can be serious without being formal. Think Buffett, or Sugar. The brightest leaders have the knack of making the complicated more simple. That’s why the BBC’s most popular leader was Greg Dyke, whose mantra was ‘cut the crap’.

2. Be honest
Don’t hide behind weasel-words. If you’re making people redundant, don’t call it ‘synergy-related headcount realignment’; it says to your people that you haven't got the guts to say what you mean. Even if you’re delivering an unpopular message, you can get points for honesty. When the CEO of one of our FTSE 100 clients announced a pay freeze for the whole company, the following day everyone was saying to us, ‘Well, at least he tells it like it is.’ And if you don’t know the answer to something – whether the market is going to pick up in Q2, for example – say so. Cynical readers spot bluster and it’s much more damaging than honesty.

3. Tell stories
In our writing workshops, when we talk about storytelling, people often mention the story of how Innocent Drinks was founded at a music festival. Their leaders have told it umpteen times, and the story has spread (it’s on their website if you’ve never heard it). It’s a story that tells you tons more about Innocent’s values and appeal than a PowerPoint deck. People who don’t even work for Innocent remember it, and can recount it. That’s because we’ve been trained since birth to retain stories better than facts and stats.

4. Paint pictures
And I don’t mean graphs. It could be your idea of the future (like Martin Luther King’s ‘I have a dream’), or literally an image that captures the spirit you’re trying to convey. When Vince Cable was stand-in leader of the Liberal Democrats at Prime Minister’s Questions, he said Gordon Brown had gone from being ‘Stalin to Mr Bean’. He captured something everyone had been saying, but made it more memorable than anyone else. And it took the Commons by storm.

5. Have an opinion
People will only listen to leaders with something to say. We admire leaders with the courage of their convictions, even when we disagree. So don’t let people water down what you’ve got to say; express your ideas clearly and uncompromisingly. Churchill did not say, ‘We will aim to fight them on the beaches - if circumstances are favourable.’

6. Shut up
Every week, we meet hundreds of people who feel their companies are drowning in update emails, all-hands calls, internal and external justification and pontification. The longer you speak, the fewer people are really listening. So get to the point. Be pithy and punchy. And if you’ve got nothing to say, don’t say it.

7. Ask questions
Sometimes we think a leader’s job is to have all the answers. Not always; sometimes a great leader’s job is to pose questions (and get other people to answer them). Like Kennedy: ‘Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country'. Questions work because they stop your reader just listening and get them thinking.

8. Steal the best tricks
If you want to become a great communicator, of course Churchill, Kennedy and King are the right people to borrow from. But spread your net a bit wider, too. Nick tricks from journalists, or learn your timing from a stand-up comic. You can even try your hand at poetry; the CEO of Sun Microsystems just resigned with a haiku.

9. Don’t sign off anything you wouldn’t say yourself
Of course, most leaders have words attributed to them they’ve not had anything to do with. People write your speeches, or internal comms write your big emails. Those people are often desperate to impress you with their grip of a multitude of corporate messages. They forget why they’re writing. And they’ll make you sound like a corporate robot. So don’t let your ghostwriters break any of these rules, either. If they do, demand a rewrite.

10. Great communicators have great careers
We had a client where the whole company was bored to tears by emails from the CEO, while everyone looked forward to hearing from the (Australian) COO. Why? Because the COO’s communications were brimming with (Aussie) personality, as well as a healthy smattering of all nine of the techniques above. The result? He was headhunted to become the CEO somewhere else. You can’t keep a good communicator down.

Neil Taylor is creative director of The Writer, the country’s largest language consultancy. He’s also the author of 'Brilliant Business Writing'.

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