Leadership Communication Lessons from Professional Speechwriters

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Picture1-2Last month, I had the honor of speaking at the Professional Speechwriters Association’s 2019 World Conference in Washington, D.C. The theme of this year’s conference was “Leadership Communication: Next,” and the program promised to shake up attendees’ ideas of executive communication best practices and challenge us to think more deeply about time-tested techniques.

And boy did executive director David Murray and my fellow speakers deliver. Here are four of my favorite takeaways from the conference.

Don’t Just Tell a Story—Make a Scene

Here at Quantified, we talk a lot about the power of storytelling in helping an audience internalize, remember, and act on a message. In her talk last month, Dr. Alyce McKenzie, a professor at SMU’s Perkins School of Theology, took that advice a level deeper, encouraging speakers not just to tell a story, but to “make a scene.”

In today’s culture, she said, where we’re constantly being pulled in a dozen directions and distracted by the latest shiny objects, our audience’s attention spans are shorter than ever. So in order to grab—and keep—their focus, we have to present our messages as visually as possible. And the key to that is working in vivid, concrete scenes.

A scene, McKenzie said, is “an anecdote with a steroidal injection of sensory detail.” And when you begin your talk by immersing the audience into a vivid scene, then connect that scene with your larger theme (the conflict, the details, the call to action), then end with the scene once more (adjusted, maybe, to show what the scene will look like if they follow your message), you’ll be more successful in persuading your them to hear and act on what you have to say.

Take Your Thought Leadership to the Next Level

As leaders, we know that sharing thought leadership is a good way to establish our credibility, build our brands, and connect with potential new clients and stakeholders. But did you know thought leadership is the most influential channel in today’s economy? Erica Pyatt, a LinkedIn Marketing Solutions manager, shared that data point and then took a deep dive into what makes great thought leadership.

She shared data from a survey of LinkedIn members on what makes them engage with thought leadership on the platform, and while inspiring content or skill-related content were found to drive some engagement, more than half of respondents really wanted three things:

  1. Content that is relevant to them
  2. Educational or informative content
  3. Content around the latest trends

The number-one driver, relevance, lines up with Quantified’s number-one leadership communication recommendation: put your audience first. With that in mind, Patt suggested balancing thought leadership across three categories:

  • Your industry: news, trends, and best practices
  • You: lessons you’ve learned, failures you’ve overcome, and advice you have to share
  • Your Organization: a behind-the-scenes look at initiatives and achievements

Get to the Point, and then Pause

We talk a lot about the importance of keeping your communication clear and easy to follow if you want your audiences to really pay attention, and Joel Schwartzberg expanded on that by diving deep into how to identify, sharpen, and emphasize your key point. First, he offered two strategies for ensuring you have a clear, definitive point and not just a subject or a theme.

  • The “I believe” test: Your point should finish that sentence. If you’re just talking about a topic, however, it won’t make sense. For example, are you just talking about leadership development, or are you making a point? “I believe every high-performer should have access to world-class learning opportunities.”
  • The truism test: Does your point have a feasible counterpoint that can be argued with logic or data? If not, then it’s probably not a point.

And then he dug deeper into how to effectively present that point. Like we teach here at Quantified, he reminded us that delivery is just as important as content. He reminded us of several ways to ensure we sound confident and grounded in our positions, but the most surprising takeaway, for me, was that it takes your audience twice as long to receive your point as you take to deliver it. So as speakers, if we want to persuade our audiences, we need to pause to give them time to process.

There Is No One Right Way to Speak in Public

Comedian, podcast host, and author Viv Groskop reminded us that, despite all these best practices and strategies, there is no one right way to communicate to a group. It’s important, she emphasized, for every speaker to find his or her own style.

Groskop’s work is focused primarily on helping women develop the tools they need to be confident speakers (her book is titled Own the Room: Woman and the Art of Brilliant Speaking), and she shared some fascinating insights on what it means for women, particularly, to be confident, charismatic speakers. Confidence itself, she clarified, is not a gender issue, but the context of confidence is different for women, who are competing to have their voices heard in a male-dominated world (especially as women join the tech industry at faster and faster rates).

Highlighting vast differences in the styles of iconic speakers such as Joan Rivers, Michelle Obama, and Hillary Clinton, she illustrated just how important an authentic, personal voice is in captivating audiences. Here at Quantified, we talk a lot about the importance of authenticity, and Groskop’s reminder was a powerful one: while we can and should teach skills and best practices for leadership communication, we need to focus equally on supporting aspiring leaders and speakers in developing and growing confident in their own voices—whatever those may be.

I was grateful to share a stage with these speakers and many others at the Professional Speechwriters Association conference, and I came away from the conference with a deeper appreciation for the craft of speechwriting and the impressive community David Murray and his team are building.