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The language of leadership

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The ability to speak well can mark the difference between leadership success and failure. Martha Leyton and Martin Shovel of CreativityWorks specialise in helping people in leadership roles become inspiring speakers - and they're here to answer your questions. 


Question: I’m chief executive of a successful third sector organisation. Over the past decade we've grown from a very small consultancy into a national organisation employing nearly 1,000 people. Nowadays we're acknowledged as the leading organisation in our sector both by those who commission our services and by rival organisations.

However, our dominant position within the sector has created a degree of hostility among our competitors – many of whom are much smaller than us – because some of them feel we have an unfair advantage over them when it comes to influencing commissioners and winning contracts. They see themselves as corner shops vainly attempting to compete against the relentless power of a supermarket chain.

Photo of Martin Shovel"There's no point in planning a speech until you’ve given some serious thought to what your audience will be thinking and feeling, so begin by putting yourself in their shoes."

Last week I accepted an invitation to give a plenary address to a conference for organisations in our sector but the prospect of doing so is beginning to worry me because of the hostility I've experienced from such audiences in the past. The theme of the conference is leadership and I have been given an open brief when it comes to interpreting the theme. Can you offer me any practical advice on how to go about preparing my speech to them?

Answer: The fact that you've identified the source of your discomfort as possible audience hostility is a good start: there's no point in planning a speech until you’ve given some serious thought to what your audience will be thinking and feeling, so begin by putting yourself in their shoes. What was it like for you when your own organisation was much smaller? Can you remember how you viewed the leaders of larger organisations - such as yourself? What do you think they will expect you to say in your speech?

This conference offers you a chance to surprise your critics and even win some of them over, if that is what you're after. A good speech can turn an audience around and bring doubters over to your side. Let's look at how you could achieve this, and let's begin by thinking about what you could say that would really be of interest, even of use, to your audience.

Photo of Martha Leyton"When speaking to a potentially hostile audience it's especially important to choose your words with care."

You say that you've grown from a small to a large organisation over the past decade. Surely the story of how you achieved this would be interesting to your listeners? You've been where they are, you understand their concerns and their frustrations, but you have found a way forward. Would you be willing to share some of the secrets of your success with them?

When speaking to a potentially hostile audience it's especially important to choose your words with care. The right words can create a feeling of trust and mutual respect between you – the wrong ones will only add fuel to their fire.

A simple tip to begin with is to avoid the use of 'you' as much as possible, and substitute 'we' wherever possible. This creates a feeling of shared experience, and reduces the perceived distance between them and you, so it will be much easier for them to really hear what you’ve got to say.

For Martha and Martin's advice on a leadership-related communication issue, send a brief email to [email protected]. To ensure confidentiality contributors names will be withheld and any recognisable details will be removed before publishing questions.

Martha Leyton and Martin Shovel are co-directors of CreativityWorks a consultancy that specialises in helping organisations and individuals get their message across more effectively. To find out more visit www.creativityworks.net; telephone 01273 249813; or email [email protected]

Martin is the presentations expert on TrainingZone.co.uk and has a popular, regular column on site called Free Thinking.

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