Why You Should Never Underestimate the Power of the Spoken Word
What words do you use to demonstrate conviction, to connect with your audience or to inspire and communicate confidence in your subject matter?
In Jim Harvey’s earlier pieces he showed us the 12 hacks to make you a more charismatic speaker (outlined again below to remind us) and explained how inspired use of figurative language will transform your message. In today’s article he looks at 4 more verbal tactics that will raise your public speaking to the next level and beyond. Look out for Jim’s future lesson on how to express all these charismatic words with real power.
Just as a reminder, the 12 hacks, based on research by Professor John Antonakis at the University of Lausanne, are as follows:
- Use metaphor
- Use stories and anecdote
- Show moral conviction
- Share the sentiments of the collective
- Set high expectations for yourself and your audience
- Communicate confidence that the goals your describing can be met
- Use simple specific rhetorical devices, including contrast (to frame and focus the message)
- Use lists (to give the impression of completeness)
- Use rhetorical questions (to create anticipation and puzzles that require an answer or a solution)
- Convey your emotional state, whether positive or negative, to demonstrate passion and obtain support for what is being said
- Use powerful body gestures, and unambiguous facial expressions for emphasis
- Use an animated voice tone
1) Show moral conviction
‘If they go low, we’ll go high’
The next two tactics are subtle, but important. In fact I think that they are more important than any of the other tactics we have discussed. Why? Because if you can do these things then you’ll be stepping into the rarefied world of the speaker who has the courage of her convictions and empathy for the audience. Most speakers exist without inhabiting one or other or any of these worlds.
Most speakers, even good speakers leave a room informed, but uninspired; entertained but unmoved. Why? Mostly because they themselves are lacking in belief or conviction about the very thing they are presenting.
Even if they do believe in what they are saying, lots of people fail to show that they care in their words or their body language, or voice, because they think that ‘professional’ means cold, unemotional and detached. There is an element of truth in that. Professionalism requires care and caution, but its expression needs a little more than that. You can be professional and charismatic.
Charisma, as we have said, is the ability of the speaker to transfer emotion from themselves to their audience. That’s all it is. Everyone is charismatic but most business people transfer their diffidence, uncertainty and caution to the audience when they speak, rather than any more positive, influential and memorable traits.
If you want to be more positively charismatic, start by asking yourself how you feel about the thing that you’re going to talk about. Is it a good thing? Will it make a difference? Is it as good as it can be? Are you proud to be associated with it? Will it help the people in the audience lead happier, healthier, simpler lives?
If the answer to these questions is a resounding ‘yes’, then make sure that the words you choose reflect your feelings, and that your delivery of those words shows them. Tell the audience exactly what you just told yourself. Use phrases like:
- I believe
- I’m confident
- It will make a difference
- This is an excellent product for you
- This is the thing that I would choose for myself
- This is right for you
If the answer to any of those self-questions is negative, then either find a way to turn the negative into a positive, or take yourself out of the equation and put yourself in the shoes of the someone who believes in it whole heartedly and speak as if you’re representing their point of view rather than your own:
- From your point of view this, I believe, is the right thing to do
- The shareholders will find this an extremely attractive proposal
- I’m convinced that the Trades Unions will see the benefits of this course of action
- From an external perspective, I believe that this is the solution that would work best for you
Inexperienced speakers forget that people are influenced by the emotional state of the speaker. The emotional state of the speaker is represented by the words they use and the way they say those words. Adding a touch of conviction, moral or otherwise to your style, a sense of right and wrong, a taste of how you feel and what you believe, will make you a more charismatic speaker.
2) Share the sentiments of the collective
‘Imagine you’re a factory worker…’
The greatest skill of any speaker is to be able to relate to her audience. By relating, I mean that you can speak to them as if you knew them better than you do. As if you liked them, admired them, respected them and thought of them as at least your equal, and probably your better in many things.
In his poem, ‘IF’, Rudyard Kipling described it like this,
If you can walk with kings nor lose your virtue and talk with crowds nor lose the common touch,
If neither foes nor loving friends can hurt you, and all men count with you yet none too much…’
The ability to flex you and your point of view to meet the audience where they are, is possibly the greatest skill that any communicator can have. How does that work in the real world?
Imagine that you’re a factory worker. Imagine that you get up at 5am every day and you work on a production line making TVs. You’re paid a minimum wage and you know that you have to get 10 hours overtime a week to pay the bills that you have, never mind the bills coming up at Christmas. You’ve worked here for 10 years, seen endless managers come and go, heard 11 Christmas ‘all hands’ meetings from the latest hotshot plant manager.
On the day of the latest meeting you find out that the factory will shut for 3 weeks over the holidays, and that you’ll be forced to take a holiday that you don’t want and you can’t afford and you’ll lose 10 days that you’d been planning to spend with your kids in summer, to this new arrangement.
How would you feel as the smart suit stands on the stage, fires up the digital projector, shows you a marketing video and then talks at you for 30 minutes of your lunch break? You’d probably feel angry, frustrated and annoyed wouldn’t you?
The great speaker would start where the audience is, wouldn’t they? Maybe with an acceptance that the changes they were proposing would cause hardship to some and inconvenience to all, and that there were reasons for the changes that would explain them, and accept that some people would still be unhappy, before launching into the details.
Understanding the sentiments of the collective means that the charismatic speaker would show empathy for the audience and build their speech around them, rather than expect that the audience to bend to their logic.
Bill Clinton was a master at this particular skill. Take a look at this example from the Democratic Convention, just before the US presidential election in 2012. Clinton was there to nominate a president. Barack Obama was under the cosh at the end of his first term, and the hope of ‘Yes we can’ from 4 years before had withered under the weight of frustrated hopes and the reality of politics in the divided houses of US Government.
Clinton knew that he had to speak to all voters, not just the raucous Democrat fans in the stadium. He knew that the opening lines of his speech would be transmitted to 150m Americans and he sought, in those opening seconds to appeal to their sentiments. He chose family, country and recent history as his starting point.
He reminded the whole of the audience about what Obama had inherited (almost complete financial collapse), he focused on the universal human desire (to provide for family) and he spoke to every audience member as a rational, caring and decent human being. He was charming, respectful and assertive. He spoke the hopes and dreams of all Americans, not just the Democrats in the room.
He understood and appealed to the good in all of them. That’s what this element of being charismatic means. Understand the people in the audience, assume the very best and highest ambitions, values and principles for them, and show them that you think that way about them.
Examples from the real world
- Selling a concept to a senior management team – ‘I know that you set the highest of standards for yourselves, and that makes it inspiring to work for you, so today I have a plan that will help you achieve exactly what you have asked for, and maybe even go a little further…‘
- Explaining a change to a challenging audience – ‘You are careful, thoughtful and rational people, and I have prepared just such an explanation for you today. I know that your challenges and suggestions will help us to create a change that will work for all of the stakeholders…‘
- Introducing a proposal to a group of pensions trustees from the mining industry – ‘Before we start our presentation I’d just like to tell you about my grandfather. He was born in 1921, fought 5 years in the war in the desert, and then became a miner. He worked underground for 38 years and retired on a full Miner’s pension in 1983. He lived out the rest of his life in a comfort and security that he had never known before. Why? Because you, the trustees of the miner’s pension scheme, are utterly committed to securing the comfort, peace and security for all of your scheme members. We are here to show you how we might help you in that hugely important work.’
If you show the people in the room that you respect, honour and recognise their concerns, principles and approaches you will tend to be listened to more and heard much more sympathetically than if you ignore them and their sentiments completely. How well do you do and show this?
3) Set high expectations for yourself and for the audience
‘My flight instructor’
Building on the previous point, it’s really important to remember that people in your audience will tend to think highly of themselves. They will seldom be offended if you tell them that and set high expectations of their response to your message and, also, that you set the same high standards for yourself.
People tend to be inspired when you take them out of their everyday limitations and (gently) challenge them to do more and be more than they ever expected themselves to be.
Viktor Frankl spent his whole life trying to understand the people who had sent him to Auschwitz, and killed most of his family and friends. He’s the inventor of ‘Proactivity’, though he seldom gets credit, and in this speech he explains the importance of high expectations in helping people to achieve.
His thesis is that the level of expectation defines the possible level of attainment for all human beings. In simple terms, if you set a low goal then people will probably undershoot that goal and achieve much less than if you set a much higher goal. People will still tend to ‘undershoot’ but they will have achieved more, simply because you expected more from them.
Lets’s think about that for a moment. In your own life, isn’t it the people who had higher ambitions for us than even we had for ourselves; our most inspiring parents, teachers and mentors; who enabled us to grow and learn much more than we thought we could?
That’s Frankl’s point. And that’s the point of this part of becoming an inspiring speaker, if we challenge our audiences to aim higher, and ourselves to do more, we are transformed from an ‘explainer’ into an ‘inspirer’.
Add the highest of expectations
So when we are speaking to a senior management team about our scheme, it’s much easier to set a low bar for them and for us, and maybe they have asked us for a modest proposal, but even if they have, what stops us from saying…
You asked me for X, and I’ll explain that to you very clearly, but I’ve also thought about you, and the ambitions that you have for this business, so I’ve prepared Y too. And ‘Y’ is the plan that I’d recommend to you if I was sitting where you are. Y is the thing that I think is the next level that we could achieve if we were certain that it would succeed…
Audiences can be moved by your ambitions for them, for everything that you think they can achieve, and used subtlely, it can be inspiring. If you think about all of the great ‘motivational’ speakers, it’s the foundation of what they do. Here’s a TED talk by Anthony Robbins. Watch it and notice that he does a lot of the things we talk about here, the building blocks of charisma; but notice mostly about the implied assumptions and expectations that he has of his audience, and notice the effect that his expectations of you, have on you.
He assumes that you are intelligent, decent, motivated, that you don’t need any help, that you are capable of doing anything that you want to do, and those expectations make you think ‘Yes, I can…’
Our job as speakers is to help our audiences feel capable of doing what we are proposing. If you want to get really good at getting them to feel ‘Yes, we can…’ Try starting by feeling that they are already capable.
4) Communicate confidence that the goals you are describing can be met
‘Yes we can’
I’m English. William Shakespeare is my hero and my inspiration in so much that I do. His ability to turn a phrase and sum up what it is to be human amazes me every day. His most famous phrase, among the hundreds, has to be ‘To be or not to be, that is the question…’ and let’s remember, when you’re pitching an idea,
To be or not to be is ALWAYS the question in your audiences’ minds.
Whether you’re pitching an idea, selling a product, explaining a plan or whatever you’re doing, remember your audience wants that kind of certainty. They want to see (and feel) that you believe that what you’re saying is possible. That it can be.
So many speakers avoid certainty, and choose ‘maybe’ and ‘hopefully’ instead. That is not inspiring. Imagine if the word ‘hopefully’ was inserted in to the great speeches of history. Churchill’s ‘We’ll fight them on the beaches’ would not have been strengthened by ‘hopefully’.
Obama’s ‘Yes we can’ 2008 campaign would not have been made more powerful by adding the words ‘if we’re lucky’ between ‘can’ and the full-stop.
Remember that your ability to inspire begins with the words that you choose to use in your planning. Active, certain, definite words trump the weak, waffly and uncertain every time.
If there’s doubt in your thinking, if you’re not certain that your plan can be delivered without help then make it certain with ‘If…then’ thinking.
Change the weakness of ‘Hopefully, if all of the elements of the plan are delivered on time…’ to ‘We will deliver this plan, on time and to budget if the following things occur as planned…’
See the difference? Audiences respond to certainty.
How certain are you?
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This article is the third in a series looking at how you can become a more charismatic speaker. The tactics described are tried and tested approaches that will add power to you and impact to your words. If you’d love to leave a more lasting impression on your audiences every time you stand up to speak, and if you would love to feel the thrill that you get when you have made a difference to the crowd as you leave the room having made your presentation, why not try these practical, simple tools the next time you’re on stage?
How to Move Hearts and Minds with these 12 Easy Hacks
The Small Changes to your Speech that will have a Big Effect