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The language of leadership


Do you sometimes struggle to find the right words? The ability to speak well can mark the difference between leadership success and failure, say Martha Leyton and Martin Shovel of CreativityWorks, who specialise in helping people become persuasive and inspiring speakers.

Question: Like many organisations during this economic downturn, my company is cutting right back on spending, reducing our workforce and rethinking our strategic plans. We’ve just had a round of redundancies and now I’d like to bring the remaining staff together for a meeting in which we can look to the future. So I’m working on a speech that I hope will ‘rally the troops’ to go forward in a positive spirit. Do you have any suggestions for how best to achieve this?

Answer: This is a hot issue for leaders and communicators in these difficult times. You don’t say much about what the content of your speech will be, so our suggestions are fairly general, but we hope you’ll find these pointers useful. When speaking to an audience of people who are fearful, angry, or upset, it’s vital that you begin by acknowledging how they feel. No doubt they will be relieved that they still have a job, but they may have lost close colleagues through redundancy and this can lead to feelings of guilt. They may also feel under pressure to achieve more with fewer resources, and they may wonder how safe their jobs are in the longer term.

But acknowledging these feelings doesn’t mean that you should claim to ‘share their pain’ or attempt to demonstrate that you ‘know how they feel’. In fact, this can aggravate the situation if you’re not careful, so try and avoid any direct comparisons or stories of how you are personally suffering in the current climate. If this talk is to achieve what you want from it, you need to both inspire and motivate your listeners. But before you can do this, you need to create trust between your audience and yourself.

The best way to do this is to be as honest and open as possible with them. Give them the facts straight, but make sure you explain and interpret the facts by putting them together into a meaningful narrative. In difficult times, people look to their leaders to make sense of what’s going on, and to provide hope for the future. Don’t be tempted to offer false reassurance though. Instead, help them to face the facts by telling stories that demonstrate the attitudes and behaviours you want them to adopt.

Leading from the front, you need to embody these attitudes and behaviours, so don’t ask people to do anything you aren’t willing to do yourself. If you can create a narrative – or story – for your organisation to unite around, you will help build a sense of purpose and vision that will inspire your listeners. There are plenty of great speakers who have, through the power of their storytelling, motivated people to bring about change. The most famous current example is Barack Obama, who uses stories not just to illustrate but also to embody his message. Finding the right story may take some work, but it will be worth the effort. Finally, make sure you let people know what you want them to do. By giving people specific actions to take, and reasons why these actions will benefit them, you can help focus their energy in a practical way.

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; telephone 01273 249813; or email [email protected]

Martin is the presentations expert on and has a popular, regular column on site called Free Thinking. To read his latest feature click here

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