For executives with a public-facing role, the game has changed. You can’t rely on common sense or instinct or winging it today as you once might have done. With mobile phones and YouTube everywhere, you have to assume that your life as a leader is entirely transparent. Leaders who rely on ad-libbing and improvisation risk looking unprepared and stilted. The irony of leadership in the Internet age is that winging it looks fake; only the prepared can look authentic.
You must become an intentional communicator, and an intentional leader. What does that mean? It means taking charge of both your content and your delivery as a speaker – whether in front of an audience, in a boardroom, or in a conversation in the hall. You’re already preparing what you say. You can no longer leave the delivery piece to chance.
You go through your day with a to-do list in your head, and if you don’t become intentional during your key communications, it’s that to-do list that will show up. And that means a smattering of emotions that go with however you’re feeling about the list – and the items on the list.
Your audience will ascribe intent to what it sees. Your colleagues, direct reports, employees, and so on don’t think to themselves, Oh, I see a slumped shoulder and a bowed head. I sense trouble. Instead, we jump immediately to intent, decoding what we see: Uh – oh, Jones is angry. This could be bad.
And your other survival mechanisms, honed over the eons of evolution, also get in the way. Defensiveness, which makes perfect sense when you are about to have a confrontation with a saber-tooth tiger, creates a bad feeling when you are trying to lead a team of software engineers. Fight-or-flight reactions of hostility, rapid heart rates, and flared nostrils don’t serve us well when your boss says, “How are you going to accomplish X in time frame Y?” They would have been fine when fleeing a woolly mammoth, but that’s no longer very likely.
Executives have to learn how to manage those instincts to become intentional communicators. We must be able to have the two conversations together in a controlled, useful, conscious way. That’s the essence of leadership communications.
Here, I break intentional communicating down into four relatively easy steps for you.
Your first step is to approach an audience, a meeting, or an interview as if you were comfortably at home talking to a loved one or a friend with whom you’re very relaxed. The point is to imagine the encounter, practice it, note the nonverbal gestures that go with it, and then use this same body language when you’re in the less intimate setting. The overall idea is to relax and achieve an open stance so that you look comfortable.
Next, you focus on your audience, whether it’s one person or many. Your nonverbal posture orients toward them, and you zero in on their issues and problems. As with openness, this is at once a question of message and body language, content, and delivery. Continuing the role play from the first step, you might imagine you were trying to get the attention of your four year old, who is engaged with some TV show. What would you say? How would you act? Would you draw nearer to your child? Get down at her level? Grab her arm? How can you translate that strong connection into the cooler one you have with, say, your direct reports at work?
Once you are connected, start to concentrate on your own feelings and emotions. How do you connect with the subject matter at hand? What do you want or feel toward it? What’s your underlying emotion during the encounter – not the irritation you might feel about a direct report who’s giving you excuses about why a project is going to be late, but rather your passion for the project itself?
Finally, authentic and charismatic communication requires that you listen to your audience. What is the underlying emotion of the person in front of you? Do you know what it is? During the course of the meeting, the event, the conference, or the speech, what’s the journey you want to take that person or persons on? Where do they start, and where do you want them to end?
If you approach your communications with these 4 steps in mind, you can achieve a union of the two conversations, the content and the body language, and thus appear authentic as a leader – and intentional.