When asked by Larry King what makes a comedian really good, Jerry Seinfeld, one of the best certainly, replied that it was a comedian who cared about his audience. Seinfeld took aim at comedians whose material says, “Hey, look at me, I’m funny.” Good comedy is about whether the audience is enjoying the act, comedian and material together. Ego plays a strong role in stand-up comedy, but skilled comedians like Seinfeld learn to sublimate the ego for the material, for the laughs. For leaders who do public speaking or presentations, there’s a lesson here: It’s not about you.
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To be heard, the leadership message you deliver must reflect your organization’s vision, mission and values. You must shape your message to resonate with the audience; not that you tell them what they want to hear, but rather what they will listen to and respond to. You phrase your messages in ways that have meaning to the audience. When you speak, you are radiating your personality but not overtly calling attention to yourself. You are not saying “look at me;” rather you are saying, “look at us.”
Preparation is critical for all leadership messages. It starts during the message development stage and continues through delivery. Here are some questions to consider when shaping a message.
What does the audience expect to hear? Before a leader speaks anywhere, she should find out what people want to know from her. She brings a perspective to issues that are unique; people expect that point of view. Take reorganization, for example. The leader can ask questions to uncover the issues on employees’ minds as well as look at data gleaned from employee surveys. That’s only a starting point. Her presentation can reflect those concerns, but she must also state her point of view and talk about why the reorganization, and its potential problems, is critical to the company’s future.
What is the audience afraid to hear? Leaders, like the rest of us, love good news. It makes us feel good to hear it, and even better to say it. But tough situations call for tough talk. Holding back bad news is a bad idea; it negates whatever message you may have because people are thinking about it. Not addressing it is fatal. For example, if a company must downsize, the board can decide to close a facility, but what about those who remain? Leaders must pay attention to their needs and fears and address them in ways that are both reassuring as well as realistic. Straight talk is essential. It is up to the leader to be honest and truthful and to lay out the consequences of what is happening and to discuss what is not happening. Failure to do so shows little respect for the audience and plants seeds of distrust.
What can your presentation do to create unity? Leaders need to build consensus to govern, even in the corporate sector. While CEOs like to think that their whim is their command, and to a degree it may be, you need people to pull together to make things work. This is especially true around new product launches, new service upgrades, organizational transformation, and mergers and acquisitions. Big issues require big follow-through actions. Leaders need to be working the aisle to hear what people are saying and learn how the message is playing. This meeting and mingling is an extension of the leadership message process. It reaches beyond the speech to the people for whom it is intended.
Public speaking is not about suppressing your ego entirely. Ego plays an essential role in leadership. We want our leaders to be bold and decisive; we need them to take action especially in times of crisis. Communication reinforces that ego when it radiates as a sense of confidence. In turn, trust develops between leader and follower.
Paying attention to how the message plays with the audience is essential to good leadership messaging. Thinking about how this in advance keeps the leader focused on what she will say and why. Such preparation also ensures greater audience receptivity and that in turn increases the likelihood the message will be remembered and ultimately acted upon.
John Baldoni is a leadership communications consultant who works with Fortune 500 companies as well as with nonprofits, including the University of Michigan. He is a frequent keynote and workshop speaker, and author of six books on leadership. His latest, “Lead By Example: 50 Ways Great Leaders Inspire Results,” publishes in October. Visit his leadership resource website at www.johnbaldoni.com