6 Ways To Talk Like a Leader
Effective leadership requires verbal discipline.
Leaders need to care about and practice the quality, specificity, and power of their language. Not enough of them do.
Communication is particularly crucial to entrepreneurs. A founder’s individual vision and presence is vital to his or her organization’s sense of itself and its direction. There are several ways a leader can immediately improve his or her language and communication.
Understand that leadership language is different
Leadership language serves a specific purpose that is different from the language used in a non-leadership role. Your communication is responsible for providing meaning about the present and the future, explaining complex tradeoffs, demonstrating resolve in the face of adversity, articulating matters others do not see, calling on the organization to uphold commitments and standards, and infusing purpose and inspiration. This does not happen with bland, casual, or vague language.
Before your next leadership event, think carefully about the words you choose. Be specific, concrete, and evocative. Rehearse out loud with people you trust: How did it sound to them? Leadership language, by its very nature, must be heightened and bold. You must be comfortable with these requirements.
Know what you want
Too many leaders don’t know what to say because they don’t know what they want. Before speaking (formally or informally) ask yourself, “What’s going on here, and what do I want?”
If the answer is grounded in the organization’s shared purpose and not your personal desires, you have a better opportunity to speak to these broader needs and goals. If you don’t know what you want (or worse, want to pursue self-centered goals), you should remain silent until you are prepared to articulate the wider view of the organization.
Use “but” very carefully
“But” is a contradictory conjunction, and should not be used after a positive phrase if your intention is to be positive. Often, “but” signals that whatever came before is not wholly valid. The common statement, “I liked your project, but…,” questions the sincerity of what was “liked” and emphasizes what the speaker wants to change.
When a leader says, “Thanks for the feedback, but I think…” it often comes across as, “I don’t appreciate what you said, and we will do it my way.” Better to say, “I’ve considered your feedback and still believe in my decision.” Similarly, a leader will address a team, “This group did great work last quarter, but now we have to focus.” Better to say, “Your great work last quarter is just the momentum we need, because this quarter will be a bigger challenge.” Instead of “but,” use “and,” “however,” “yet,” “except,” or “that said.”
Go easy with the superlatives
When too much is described as “amazing,” “awesome,” “unbelievable,” “epic,” or “incredible,” very little actually is.
Overused superlatives wash out true meaning. When a leader routinely declares commonplace events to be extraordinary, he or she contributes to a pattern of making everything sound the same. Instead of making rote declarations, explain the action and reaction in simple language.
Rather than call the sales presentation “amazing” (did it fill you with wonder?), talk about it being clear, compelling, well-researched, full of the right data, and so forth. And resist praising the team with a generic “awesome” (did they inspire awe?) Try, “Very good work.”
Stop the “uptalk”
At some point (especially in the United States), the rising vocal inflection at the end of a statement--what linguists call “uptalk”--morphed from an object of satire seen in Valley girls and surfer dudes to acceptable and everyday speech. A staggering number of adults are now afflicted with this jarring sing-song pattern of ending statements with the rising inflection of a question. Just as troubling, many people seem unaware of or unconcerned about this bad habit. A leader is always aware of and concerned about language and speech.
The practice of uptalk conveys a lack of conviction, discipline, and mindfulness. The most useful advice about this condition: Stop!
Don’t pull back
It can be easy to equivocate when speaking about an important or difficult topic. It is understandable (and not useful) to shy away from making the clearest, strongest point because full verbal commitment requires full personal courage.
Leaders sometimes “pull back” by qualifying their speech: “It’s sort of up to this team,” or “This is kind of a tough situation.” Resist the temptation of this lazy language. Using clear language will increase your courage by more fully connecting you to what you need and want to say.
Call an object by its proper name, and a situation as it is. Deliberately use concrete and accurate language, and clarity will follow. Practice your speaking, alone and with others. Seize the moments, because it is up to you to use the best possible leadership language. Speak up and speak well.
BRIAN EVJE | Columnist | Management Consultant, Slalom Consulting
Brian Evje helps people and organizations lead change and growth. This involves a process consultation approach to leadership (coaching and development), change (organization and culture), and organizational health (strategy, design, effectiveness, and fitness.) Brian is a Principal of Equipoise Alliance, an organizational consultancy, a Member of The Change Leaders, and an Executive-in-Residence at Astia, a global not-for-profit propelling women's full participation as entrepreneurs and leaders in high-growth businesses. He is a graduate of Santa Clara University, and the Master's program Consulting and Coaching for Change at HEC School of Management, Paris/Saïd Business School, University of Oxford.