“Have you ever seen an executive scurry across the stage with his head down, clutching a copy of his presentation, and begin speaking immediately upon reaching the podium? Such an executive resembles a mouse seeking shelter more than a leader about to deliver an important message! Yet we see this kind of behavior all too often.”—John Baldoni
“What do people want most from leaders?” asks John Baldoni in the opening of this book. His answer: “the real deal”—authenticity.
Communication opens the door to authenticity. When you can craft your words for a speech, the delivery must be authentic. Baldoni calls this “leadership presence.”
He states that “giving a great speech is somewhat of a lost art” but goes on to say that with practice and work, it is an art that can make a comeback. Success hinges on a willingness to try and a commitment to speak in public whenever you can.
When I picked up this book, I thought it was mainly going to be about public speaking, as in giving speeches. But it is really more about leadership. This book is for leaders who are trying to get their message across.
When you think back on some of the great speeches and great speakers of history, you realize what a powerful leadership tool this is. This book will help you improve how you use this essential channel more effectively in the age of “death by PowerPoint.”
Sound, silence, and singing
“The Sound of Your Leadership Speech” is the first chapter. After reading it, I would have gone with “The Sound of Music,” but I think that may already be taken. This chapter makes direct comparisons to musical composition and encourages readers to think of a speech in the same way.
Your speech must have melody, harmony, and rhythm. Your speech opening should give your audience just a taste of what’s to come. When it comes to the pitch of your speech, it should fluctuate, as that will pull the audience into what you are saying.
For the rhythm, it should be varied, it should be interesting. Flat pitch in speaking is compared to spiritual chanting—it can put you to sleep. Ever notice when a boring high school teacher is portrayed in a movie, such as “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off,” undoubtedly they have a flat speech pattern?
Sometime, silence communicates. As Baldoni advises, “if you do nothing else in your next speech, pause.”
Pauses can be for emphasis, for effect, or for reflection, and they are powerful. Pauses give listeners time to reflect on what you are saying.
You should strive for a closing that it leaves a lasting impression. And, of course, in the end, you want to leave your audience wanting more.
Should you memorize your speech? Baldoni doesn’t think so. Instead, he recommends going through it, getting to know the context and knowing what comes next, rather than paying too much attention to the precise words. He recommends scanning the sentences as you speak to emphasize key words, to avoid sounding like a first-grader reciting a poem.
Creating a receptive audience
The next section of the book focuses on how to demonstrate your leadership through presence. The three suggestions the author gives are:
• Make personal contact
• Acknowledge your audience
• Break the ice.
These steps will put the audience in a mood to listen to you and affirms your leadership strengths.
It is important to make your audience feel welcome. Baldoni stresses putting your audience at ease as you would guests in your home. The author provides “action steps” at the end of each section and in this one he suggests that you visualize yourself in a relaxing place, breathe deeply, and imagine you radiate confidence as you speak. Then ask what you can do to make your audience more comfortable.
Which sets the stage for the reader for the next chapter, “Stand up Straight (and Don’t Forget to Breathe).” Baldoni means exactly that—posture is critical to delivery. If necessary, he advises, adjust the microphone so you do not slouch. Breathing deeply can have a calming effect.
Make eye contact with your audience. Project your voice when speaking.
Baldoni quotes the rules for Parliamentary speakers from James Lowther, Speaker of the British House of Commons:
“Stand Up. Speak Up. Shut Up.”
PowerPoints that actually make points
The author then focuses his attention on PowerPoint presentations. We have all seen them. And how often have you heard, “I know you can’t read this, but …”
When this happens, either illegible slides or lack of confidence is to blame.
That brings us to the single worst thing a presenter can do: Undercut their own authority to deliver a message. Poor use of PowerPoints can do that.
The author suggests working up PowerPoints in the following way. First, create your presentation, jotting ideas on individual slides. After that, go back to add text. Use no more than five bullets per slide and even better, add visual interest. This can be pictures, videos, clip art, or charts.
Once your presentation is put together, test it. If possible, view the presentation from the back of the room where it will be presented to see if everything is legible.
A common mistake is to read the PowerPoint slides verbatim. You want to use the slides to communicate and emphasize key thoughts, not as a reading aid, Baldoni advises. When you have a lot of data, instead of speaking it or putting it up on screen, use handouts that reference key information.
The best suggestion the author offers regarding PowerPoint presentations is “be correct, be clear, be convincing.”
He wraps up with a final rule on PowerPoints:
“As with alcohol, use in moderation.”
Stories aren’t just for kids
Who doesn’t love a good story?
The chapter, “Tell Me a Story,” illustrates how a good story is a useful leadership tool.
Good stories can inspire.
Leaders use them to connect with their followers.
And stories can breathe life into raw, indigestible data.
Tone is important. The author discusses projecting optimism. But while leaders must project optimism, they still have to be realists.
A good example given is sports coaches, who focus their players on the possibilities but do not minimize the hard work needed to obtain the team’s goals. He cautions about overpromising and advises focusing on what people do well. Tempering optimism with reality makes leaders more authentic and when a leader projects this, he is seen as believable.
Making your leadership shine through
The book also discusses the importance of meeting and mingling with your people beyond the built-in company hierarchy.
For instance, a CEO will hear from his reports what is going on in the bank.
But a really good CEO will go beyond his direct reports and speak with people in the support departments and in the branches and he will make himself visible. This creates a connection to the leader that pays off in support and trust.
In general, clarity is essential. In delivering that, the author suggests showing context—explain why this is important and that isn’t; invite participation to get employee engagement; and be specific about what you want to achieve.
As a leader—whether you are head of a department or head of a bank—you will have a duty to deliver speeches. Baldoni’s short book provides a guide that includes considering your context, focusing your thoughts, researching your topic, outlining your thoughts, using stories and words, making a rough draft, getting feedback from a trusted source, editing, and finally rehearsing the final product.
And then, “game day.” Don’t forget to breathe.