Full text of Want to Sound Like a Leader? Start by Saying Your Name Right by Laura Sicola TEDxPenn conference.
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One of the hottest topics in courses and books nowadays with regard to leadership communication is the concept of executive presence. What does it mean? How do you define it? And can it be taught or learned?
The Center for Talent Innovation identified three main pillars of executive presence: appearance, communication skills, and gravitas. Gravitas means things like “Do your words have teeth?”, “Are you able to make the tough decisions and stick with them?”
One of the missing pieces when you think about what’s integrated really between the lines of broad concepts like communication skills and gravitas is vocal executive presence, as I call it. It’s the missing link. How do you sound when you’re making those tough decisions? Does your delivery reinforce your message and establish the image that you want? Or does it undermine it?
What happens if I’m trying to diffuse a tense situation and I say: “Okay, everybody just calm down now, we need to reevaluate the situation.” At worst, I’m just adding fuel to the fire, and at best, you may later on gently suggest that I switched to decaf. It’s about how we connect. I end up working a lot with people who are preparing for presentations and for press conferences, and they make statements like: “We’re very passionate about helping children and improving the quality of our schools.” And I think to myself:”Really? Because you could’ve fooled me.”
There’s a claim of passion, but there’s no evidence thereof. The problem is a disconnect between the choice of words and their execution, their delivery. And this creates a problem of credibility.
Now, there’s a historic and seminal study that looked at feelings and attitudes as a result of the consistency or inconsistency in verbal and nonverbal messaging cues. And what they found was that when they ask people to evaluate speakers as far as whether or not they thought the speaker sounded sincere, 38% of that evaluation was based on the tonality of the speaker’s voice. Tonality being things like the ups and the downs in your intonation patterns.
In contrast, only 7% of those decisions were based on the speakers’ words that they chose, and the remaining 55% were looking at non-verbal cues, were based on non-verbal cues like your posture, your eye contact, et cetera.
Now, this is a study. We have to be careful because lots of people love to misquote it. And you’ll hear people make grand statements like: “Well, you know, 55% of all communication is non-verbal.” That’s not remotely accurate and it’s not what the study was talking about, but what we can take from this study, and a lot of subsequent research in the area is the importance of sounding credible.
Now, I’d like you to think about this in the context of how you personally prepare for some sort of presentation. Do you spend 38% of your time working on the delivery? If you’re like most people, you probably spend the vast majority, if not all of your time, working on the content: your outline, your script, your PowerPoint slides, making sure you got cool graphics and some snazzy animations, crunching your data to put into your spreadsheets.
But then, after all that work, we sort of wing the delivery hoping it will be good enough. And in the end, that’s just comparatively weak, and it can undermine both your immediate goals and objectives, as well as your long-term image and reputation. The fact is, if you want to be seen as a leader, you have to sound like one. You have to demonstrate vocal executive presence.
Now, a part of vocal executive presence is the ability to read an audience and identify the kind of person from whom they would be most open to receiving your message, and then figure out what that kind of person would sound like.
Now, to an extent, we’re all born with the voice that we have, but we do have a lot of control over how we use it. Margaret Thatcher is a great example thereof. She was the first woman in British Parliament, and she was overtly mocked by a lot of her opponents with phrases like: “Me thinks the Lady doth screech too much” because when she was passionate in her arguing certain points, her voice would go higher and become rather shrill. So when she decided to run for Prime Minister, she worked with a tutor from the National Theater who helped her to lower her pitch in order to sound more authoritative. And this is really important because the voice has both cognitive and emotional effects on the listener.
Let’s start with the cognitive. We talked about tonality, that 38%, the highs and the lows in your voice. And if we use this strategically, we can actually help the listener to focus on the most important words and parts of the message which makes for a lighter processing mode and helps them understand and potentially remember what we’re saying. And this can have a persuasive influence.