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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: Last year I went to the annual conference of my professional body and was blown away by our chief executive's conference address. He spoke for over 20 minutes in a relaxed and engaging conversational manner, and instead of using the lectern as some kind of protective shield, he abandoned it altogether so that he was free to walk about. He didn’t appear to be using any notes either. The effect of this on his audience was palpable – and afterwards the room was buzzing with it. Everyone was impressed, and felt inspired and energized by his speech. It was as if, through his new speaking style, he had made a personal connection with each member of the audience.

Martha Leyton"All you really need to remember are the main stages of your speech, and the best way to do this is to turn each one into a memorable keyword or image."

So I decided to follow his example when I delivered my next speech. I prepared by writing it out in full and learning it word for word, because that way I hoped I wouldn’t lose my thread and forget what I wanted to say next. However, on the day it didn’t go well. I went blank several times, and found myself grinding to a halt. I managed to get through it somehow, but I know my audience picked up my discomfort, and my speech certainly didn’t have the impact I’d hoped for. I am determined to master this, so my question is: where did I go wrong with my preparation? And can you give me any tips for delivering this kind of conversational speech from memory?

Answer: First let us applaud your intention to adopt a more relaxed style of presentation and your determination to rise to the challenges posed by it. You are quite right that preparation is essential for this style, despite the off-the-cuff feel of the resulting speech. So, how to prepare?

The first stage is to write out what you want to say in full – as you did – to get its shape, structure and key points clear. Once you’ve done this, spend a bit of time on the words themselves, choosing stories and metaphors that will bring your message to life so that people can ‘see what you mean’. Keep your language simple and jargon-free, and aim to make no more than three points over all. If the structure of your speech is clear, logical and easy for your audience to follow, it will also be much easier for you to remember. Using simple rhetorical devices (such as lists of three) is another technique that you may find useful for this.

Martin Shovel"When you pause for a moment to find your place you'll be searching for an image, not a particular word... the result will be a much more relaxed and conversational in style."

Once you’re happy with the written version of your speech, the next stage is to prepare your delivery. If you’re going to do without notes and use a conversational style, this stage is all about grasping the structure and key points, rather than trying to learn the speech word for word. All you really need to remember are the main stages of your speech, and the best way to do this is to turn each one into a memorable keyword or image. For example, imagine you are giving a talk about the power of Barack Obama's oratory, and one of the points you want to remember is that Obama knew that if he could find the right words they'd eventually open the doors of the White House to him. Fortunately this phrase is already very visual and dynamic. The image of doors bursting open or the image of a key with words written on it would probably be enough for you to encapsulate that particular point on your journey through the speech. But the most important thing about any visual mnemonic is that it should be meaningful to you. So begin by knowing what you want to say.

Next, arrange the points you want to make into a meaningful sequence. Familiarise yourself with the route that leads from one point to the next. And finally, represent each main point with a suitable visual mnemonic. You'll no longer find yourself pressurized and restricted because you have to remember exactly the right words. This means that now when you pause for a moment to find your place you'll be searching for an image, not a particular word. And the great thing about images is that you can describe them in a variety of ways – you're not confined to a single form of words. You are free then to speak ‘in the moment’, and the result will be a much more relaxed and conversational in style.

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. To read his latest feature click here

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