Every executive was once a manager, and every manager was once an entry-level employee. Those who advanced understood that making the right impression and sending the right message was not a luxury — it was a necessity.
Once emerging managers themselves, they carefully prepared for both impromptu and planned presentations, and they saw dividends paid in the form of increased trust, credibility and leadership opportunities, both for themselves and their companies.
In their book, Credibility: How Leaders Gain and Lose It, Why People Demand It, Santa Clara University’s Leavey School of Business instructors James M. Kouzes and Barry Z. Posner emphasize for all who want to become leaders to “say what you mean and mean what you say.”
Preparation is essential, but fortunately not complex. Here are some keys to consider.
Define Goals, Hone the Message
With desired outcomes in mind, speakers gain focus on delivering the key points they want the audience to remember and take away and share with their peers. For learning leaders preparing to lead meetings, this step may be as simple as jotting down individuals’ assignments for various tasks, then outlining the main points that will convince each person to take ownership.
Know the Audience
By considering each audience’s background, beliefs and expectations, speakers can more easily calibrate the demeanor and vernacular most appropriate for the topic at hand. Some executives — and even national leaders, like President Barack Obama and Secretary of State Hilary Clinton — can forget their audience at times. Successful communicators remember that each audience is unique and therefore work hard to make their information and presentation understandable.
Keep It Short and Sweet
Messages can get muddled by dense terminology. Worse yet, they can get missed entirely if the audience loses interest.
Many trainers recommend coming up with three or four main points, then thoughtfully introducing the messages, delivering them and saying them again. Using different words, anecdotes or figures keeps the message lively.
Actor James Earl Jones, perhaps best known as the voice of Darth Vader in the 1970s classic film “Star Wars,” met regularly with a vocal coach throughout his career. Asked why, Jones said one must continue to practice to improve.
Successful actors, business executives and politicians alike learn early on that, to fix flaws, both subtle and glaring, they have to ask for outside help. Videotaping mock presentations and interviews for playback in group critique can be helpful, especially when accompanied by challenging question-and-answer sessions afterward. For this, practice rapid response.
Open Up to Learning
By assessing performance fairly and honestly, studying audience evaluations and engaging trusted colleagues and friends to watch for strengths and weaknesses, both novice and practiced communicators can learn and advance.
Charles Duhigg, in his book The Power of Habit, introduces what he calls “the habit loop,” where routine thoughts and patterns, like the examples above, become subconscious behaviors. When negative, one must work tirelessly to minimize and overcome them. On the flip side, it’s also possible to actively foster positive habits.
Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz, for instance, has used his reputation to encourage consumers to support of the idea that entrepreneurs will lead the U.S. to bigger and brighter futures. Whether readers agree or disagree with the premise, writing an open letter to the nation, as Schultz did, is a bold move that only a leader — and a purposeful communicator — can make.
Meaningful communication, as a path to leadership, is open to anyone who chooses to pursue it. Regardless of skill level, by investing time and energy in the key steps provided here, entry-level employees, managers and executives alike can build a solid leadership reputation.
John Seigenthaler is CEO of Seigenthaler Public Relations – New York. He can be reached at editor@CLOmedia.com.