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How to Speak Like a Leader

You can project power by imitating the characteristic speaking style of the powerful, psychology suggests.
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What do powerful leaders look like when they speak?

Maybe you pictured puffed chests, raised chins, firm gesticulations, and powerful words. All of these may be the stereotypical hallmarks of leaders as portrayed by Hollywood, but science suggests there is another simple difference between speakers we perceive as powerful and just your average schmo up on the stage: True leaders use more abstract language.

This insight comes out of a series of six experiments published recently in The Journal of Personality and Social Psychology and highlighted by PsyBlog. A team led by Cheryl Wakslak of USC's Marshall School of Business looked into what factors give a speaker the appearance of being powerful in a variety of settings.

Abstract = Powerful

Powerful leaders, the findings reveal, don't get bogged down in the details. Instead, they're more inclined to speak in broader terms, conveying the big picture or the larger narrative. The more into the weeds a speaker gets, the less power he or she is perceived to have.

For example, in one political example presented to study participants, politicians who spoke about the exact number of casualties resulting from a natural disaster were rated as less powerful than those who spoke about the overarching idea of a "national tragedy." This principle held regardless of the topic the speaker was addressing.

"Use of abstract language that captured the gist or meaning of an event led a speaker to be perceived as more powerful, relative to concrete language that focused on specific details and actions, regardless of whether the speaker was discussing a person, a societal issue, or a product; describing something negative or positive; or saying a few words or several sentences," the researchers wrote.

Why and So What?

Why does speaking in general terms have such a significant effect on audiences? The researchers claim that speaking more abstractly conveys two characteristics most people believe are central to great leadership--the ability to both see the big picture and make judgements about it.

"When people use abstract language, they communicate that they are removed from the action and able to distill the gist or essence of the situation, instead of focusing on the concrete actions that would be most salient if they were 'on the ground,'" the study authors assert.

This link between abstract language and perceived power is a handy insight for aspiring business leaders, as it's simple enough to bear this preference in mind when designing your own communications. So next time you're debating whether to include that fourth statistic in your slide or weighing up whether to mention just one more relevant detail, keep in mind that the more small matters you include, the less powerful you'll seem.

IMAGE: Getty Images
Last updated: Jul 8, 2014

JESSICA STILLMAN | Columnist

Jessica Stillman is a freelance writer based in London with interests in unconventional career paths, generational differences, and the future of work. She has blogged for CBS MoneyWatch, GigaOM, and Brazen Careerist.

The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.



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