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The language of leadership


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.

Q: As a director, I have to do a lot of public speaking, and although I'm a confident presenter, I often feel that my speeches and presentations lack pizazz. I've seen a number of speakers in action who seem able to engage and entertain an audience more easily than me. Friends and colleagues tell me I have a good voice and delivery, but they also say that sometimes my content can be too well-structured and clear for its own good. Is this somewhat backhanded compliment just a polite way of telling me it's 'dull', I wonder?

So I'd like to make my speeches more entertaining, and I'm wondering whether to try injecting some humour into them to spice them up a bit. The problem is I've seen speakers fall flat on their faces when their jokes have backfired, and not being a natural social joke-teller myself, I don't want to risk disaster by stepping outside my comfort zone. Do you have any suggestions for me?

Photo of Martin Shovel"Try looking for surprising and amusing analogies and metaphors that throw new light on your subject."

A: Humour is a great way to win over an audience by putting them at their ease, and holding their attention. But you are absolutely right to be wary of using jokes in your speeches. Even a joke that makes an audience laugh won't necessarily help you get your message across, and it could even prove a distraction from it. And as you mention, at worst, you risk embarrassment if the joke bombs.

But don't lose heart! The way forward is through the use of wit, rather than jokes. A witty analogy can really make your audience sit up and take notice, while keeping them entertained at the same time. Think of Vince Cable's speech to the Commons last year, when he spoke of "…the prime minister's remarkable transformation in the past few weeks - from Stalin to Mr Bean, creating chaos out of order rather than order out of chaos." The audience howled with laughter and – more importantly – the remark was picked up by the press and became one of the most memorable quotes of the year. In just a few words Vince Cable had managed to achieve his purpose.

Photo of Martha Leyton"You are absolutely right to be wary of using jokes in your speeches."

So if you want to liven up your speeches and entertain your audience, try looking for surprising and amusing analogies and metaphors that throw new light on your subject. The best ones, like Vince Cable's, will stick in the minds of your audience and help you achieve your purpose, while also establishing you as an entertaining and clever speaker who is worth listening to.

For Martha and Martin's advice on a leadership-related communication issue, send a brief email to 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

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

To read last month's Language of Leadership column click here

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