Contrary to popular belief, not all great leaders start with great communication skills. Churchill, perhaps the greatest orator of the twentieth century, stuttered badly as a child and took speech therapy even as an adult. During one of his early performances at the podium he was so afraid that he actually passed out. Lincoln was by no means a natural speaker, yet his eloquence grew with his wisdom. The Gettysburg Address lasted just over two minutes and contained less than 300 words, yet what power those words held. They moved an entire nation then, and continue to do so.
Destiny hangs on a word
These two legendary orators illustrate beautifully the point that often in the course of history the entire fate of a nation, company or sports team can hinge on a single speech. A speech that evokes passion. A speech that rallies pride. A speech that stirs uncommon motivation to act, and instills an undying commitment to see that action through to its successful conclusion. Make no mistake about the power of the spoken word to change the fortune of any country, organization or company.
Nations have been brought back from the depths of despair to achieve victory over tyrannical oppressors. History has witnessed the power of Churchillís unique ability to marshal the English language into action to save a bruised and battered Britain in World War Two.
Companies have been saved from the brink of disaster by the power of a few well-chosen words, spoken with feeling and eloquence. I have personally witnessed the fortunes of an entire company, filled with mistrust and bursting with rumor and discontentment, change in less than an hour after a sterling speech by the CEO.
The world of sports is full of powerful stories about turning around the fortunes of a downtrodden team, brought back from the dead by a legendary coach to clinch victory in the Superbowl, the World Series or the World Cup. Remember, “Win one for the Gipper”?
Legendary Leaders know the power they wield with every word they speak and therefore take great care in planning all of their communications. Churchill often spent days writing, re-writing and practicing a one hour radio speech. Lincoln spent over a week working on the two-minute Gettysburg address. Mark Twain once wrote a letter of several pages to a friend apologizing for its length, but further noting he simply hadn’t the time to write a shorter one. It takes enormous skill and effort to get a message across with brevity, but oh how much more powerful the message becomes.
All communication is personal communication
Whether speaking to a convention of 5,000 people or to a team of little leaguers, it pays to remember that all communication is personal. People listen and respond as individuals, not as groups. Each person in your audience, no matter how big or small it is, relates to your words in a personal way. Even if 5,000 individuals get up and applaud you, they still have to do it one by one. Itís the ability to touch the individual that motivates the group to act.
Before we get into the steps you must take to improve individual communication, let’s first define the four things that must happen in order for communication to actually occur.
1) A message must be conveyed
Too often, people in positions of leadership ramble on, enamored with the sound of their own voices, speaking volumes of text and saying nothing. (Politicians are particularly good at this.)
Before commencing any speech or letter, you must have a clearly-defined message that you want to convey. The simpler the message, the better.
2) 10-4 good buddy. A message must be received . . .On CB radios, police officers, truckers and others signal to each other that a message has been received and understood using the code numbers 10-4 Leaders are not as fortunate, since there is no such recognized response from audiences to indicate that a message has hit home. But hit home it must or communication has not taken place. We’ve all listened to someone at a party for minutes on end, only to move to another group having no recollection of anything we just heard. That’s not communication.
3) . . . and understood
I was on a plane once with a woman who was flying to meet a son who had recently moved to Fayetteville. Unfortunately, when she called to find out why he was not at the gate to meet her, she learned from her daughter-in-law that they had moved to Fayetteville, Tennessee not Fayetteville, Arkansas. Your message must not only be heard but also understood. The old acronym KISS, or Keep It Simple Stupid, can never be put to better use than when speaking.
4) There must be some reaction to the message
What is it you want the audience to do after hearing your message? Do you want them to devote their time to help build a new playground for kids in your neighborhood? Do you want them to donate money to fund a church or hospital? Do you want them to vote for you in the next election for the school board, the county commission or the Presidency? Do you want them to reduce defects at your factory so you can help cut costs and preserve jobs? Whatever reaction you hope to stimulate should be spelled out loud and clear in each and every communication.
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