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Book Excerpt: “Finding Your Leadership Voice”

This excerpt is from Ron Williams new book, Learning to Lead: The Journey to Leading Yourself, Leading Others, and Leading an Organization. For more, listen to our podcast conversation with Williams.

Finding Your Leadership Voice

One of the most important skills any leader must develop is the ability to communicate—to share ideas clearly, engagingly, persuasively. If people inside and outside your organization don’t understand your message or find it unappealing, they won’t follow you—and your ideas, no matter how brilliant, will go to waste.

You can communicate your message in many ways—through public speaking, writing, video and audio presentations, talks accompanied by visual aids, and online tools like blogging, social media, and podcasts. Today’s leader needs to be familiar with all these communication methods and at least passably effective in using each one. “Finding your voice” means learning how to present yourself and your ideas in a way that audiences find authentic, understandable, and persuasive no matter what communication medium you use.

For many would-be leaders, the toughest part of this challenge may be having to stand up before an audience and give a speech. Virtually everyone, it seems, finds speaking in public terrifying. When surveyed, people routinely name “giving a speech” as their number one fear—one spot above “death”!

Fortunately, you don’t have to be naturally eloquent or charismatic to be an effective communicator. I’m proof of that. Most people describe me using words like “low-key,” “quiet,” “soft-spoken,” and “understated.” I tend to listen and reflect more than I talk. That hasn’t stopped me from becoming a successful leader or from conveying my thoughts clearly to an audience.

Ron Williams, “Learning to Lead”

Complicating the challenge, my public speaking ability has been affected by a problem most would-be leaders don’t have to grapple with—a tendency to stutter. It has been a problem since boyhood, though not consistently. Rather, I found myself stuttering particularly in times of stress—when asked by a teacher to recite before the entire class, for example. I also noticed that certain sounds were problematic for me to pronounce. The letter s was a difficult one, which means that a word like “suppose” would tend to trip me up.

Stuttering was most stressful for me early in my career, when I had much less experience at communicating to a large audience. Even seemingly simple tasks like introducing myself or telling a quick story to illustrate an idea took significant concentration and effort. Later, I still worried about my stutter in challenging situations like making a business presentation in front of an auditorium full of employees or being interviewed on radio or TV.

Over the years, I honed my public speaking abilities through thoughtful self-study and constant practice. I picked up hints from others who stuttered and discovered useful techniques through sheer experimentation. I learned to slow down, to rephrase tricky sentences so they are easier to pronounce, and to avoid sound combinations (like repeated s’s) that give me trouble.

Most important, I found that speaking spontaneously from a simple outline works far better for me than reading a prepared script. I have tried a couple of times to read a speech drafted for me by a talented writer. You might think that having all the words predetermined would simplify the speaking process and make it more effective. But I found the opposite to be true. I focused on reading the speech and delivering the words accurately, one phrase at a time. As a result, I ended up using vocal tones and hand gestures disconnected from my meaning. I came across as inauthentic, and audiences were distracted by my delivery rather than persuaded by my message. Others leaders with whom I’ve compared notes have said they’ve had similar experiences.

Preparing to Be Spontaneous

Over time, I developed a method for preparing a speech that has worked well for me. Perhaps you’ll find it helpful, too. The basic approach is straightforward:

Simplify your message to a handful of key points—no more than four or five concepts for a fifteen- to twenty-minute speech. (No leader should ever give a speech that lasts longer than twenty minutes. Forty minutes should be legally banned as cruel and unusual punishment!)

Fight the temptation to include more information. Be ruthless about cutting less-important details so the truly crucial ideas can emerge with the clarity and emphasis they deserve. Keeping your talk brief also leaves ample time for questions, which many audience members consider the most important and valuable part of the presentation.

Start your preparation process well in advance of your scheduled talk—two or three weeks ahead, if possible. This means you have time to learn your key ideas so well you can explain them in your sleep. Spend a few minutes every day reviewing your key ideas and explaining them. Work at it until you know the material so well that you find it utterly boring. (Education experts call this overlearning, and it has been shown to be crucial to outstanding performance.)

Add a touch of humor in the first few minutes of your speech, and be sure to let your enthusiasm and passion for the topic shine through.

If you follow these guidelines, when D-Day arrives, you’ll be able to deliver a clear, crisp fifteen- or twenty-minute talk that will capture any audience’s interest and embed itself in their memories.

Communicating When Times Are Tough

All of the difficulties that are built into the communication process are heightened when the organization you’re leading is facing hard times.

When you need to turn around a troubled organization or guide it through a complex change process—two of the toughest challenges any leader can face—you need to engage the support of a critical mass of team members. You don’t necessarily need to capture the hearts and minds of one hundred percent of your people, although of course you’ll want to get as close to that goal as possible. But if you can get a solid ten percent (preferably of the influencers regardless of level in the company) firmly in your corner—five out of fifty in a small company, a hundred out of a thousand in a bigger organization—you can begin to make progress. Your first cadre of supporters will help spread your message through their daily words and actions. And over time, as signs of progress begin to appear, the remainder will gradually follow.

The first challenge for any leader in stressful times is to win over that critical ten percent. That requires working hard to get your message clear in your mind and to communicate it as accurately and compellingly as possible.

Fortunately, you shouldn’t have to manage the messaging process completely on your own. I’ve always relied on the help of my closest advisors to help me improve my communication abilities. For example, before giving an important speech, I like to review the key points with a few staff members. Their honest advice has often helped me avoid needless missteps—for example, using language that would alienate or confuse the audience, delving into excessive detail, or omitting information that’s essential to make my ideas clear.

One particular chief of staff during my time at Aetna was especially good at helping me explain Aetna’s latest business results for lay audiences by translating numbers into words or images. Those of us with financial training who work every day immersed in figures and formulas can easily forget that the language of mathematics is not second nature to everyone; we need the help of people like her to show us how to bridge the divide.

In your early days as a business leader, you probably won’t have a chief of staff to lean on. Instead, identify a colleague or friend, inside or outside the organization, who can give you frank, specific, intelligent advice about how your messaging efforts are coming across. Practicing your speech in front of an advisor of this kind can help you lift your performance from the B-minus level to an A or even A-plus.

Equally important is getting feedback after a speech, presentation, or meeting—the sooner the better, while memories are still fresh. After I give an important talk, I like to get reviews from two or three trusted friends who observed my performance. I ask questions like: What did I say that I shouldn’t have said? Are there things I didn’t say that I should have? When and how did I lose the audience? What did I say that really hit home? What can I do better next time? I emphasize that I need honest, objective feedback, not praise or flattery—and, of course, I work hard not to respond defensively or angrily when I hear negative feedback. If people get the impression that you aren’t comfortable hearing bad news, they quickly stop delivering it!

In the end, communication is about human connections. It doesn’t matter how much time and practice you dedicate to preparation if your message doesn’t resonate with your audience. That’s why effective leaders understand that communication is a team sport. They rely on trusted advisors to help them hone their message and continually improve their communication skills. It’s a method that worked for me, and I believe it’ll work for you, too.