How do winners speak?

by Sam on November 9, 2010

If all my talents and powers were to be taken away from me by some inscrutable Providence, and I had my choice of keeping but one, I would unhesitatingly ask to be allowed to keep the Power of Speaking, for through it I would quickly recover all the rest.  ~Daniel Webster


One-Minute Answer:  Last week I reported on advice given to an emerging leader. It went to a manager in a huge professional services firm in answer to a question he posed to a senior partner in that firm. The young man’s question was, “What do I need to do to make partner here?” The answer was, “Think, speak, and act like a partner.”


A while back I was surprised by a study showing that the most influential communicators in society are not salespeople, pastors, or television anchors but corporate CEO’s. So, what do you think? Do CEO’s get that way after rising to the top or is their ascendency correlated to the communication skills they demonstrate in earlier positions? Silly question, isn’t it? What an endorsement for the second third of the partner’s advice!


Last week we answered, “How do winners think?” Next week it’ll be, “How do winners act?” Right now let’s learn how to speak your way to whatever desires you have for future success.


Five-Minute Answer:  Let’s make sure this potentially career-advancing advice has the maximum value for you. Before reading any further, choose someone with whom—or a context within—you want better results. Settle on a person or a situation where you most want more attention, increased understanding, and greater influence. Consider the possible gain for you of applying each idea below in the context you elected.


1.  Purge [just about] every other word.  Before [thinking of] making a presentation, [be sure to] go over your [first rough] draft [thoroughly] to [be sure to] eliminate [completely all of the] unnecessary words [and phrases] that [might] weaken your [entire] message. Notice the vigor added to this sentence as the words in brackets disappear.

2.  Purge “uhm,” “ah” and “you know”.  The next time you hear an influential person speak, notice how long you have to wait between unnecessary utterances. Increase your crispness by shutting down between your ideas rather than fill the airwaves with junk.

3.  Purge pet phrases.  For some speakers it’s “basically.” For others it could be, “Well, if you ask me.” Other programmed sayings that enter ears and rattle brains are far too numerous to mention here. Listen for yours so the rest of us don’t have to. Hope it’s not #4.

4.  Purge “To tell you the truth”.  Are you not telling the truth when you don’t say this? Generally it’s a good practice to limit the use of “I” except when you’re owning your feelings, beliefs, and values, admitting fault, or delivering constructive criticism.

5.  Avoid “you” when delivering criticism.  It will rarely be constructive when that’s the first word used to pinpoint an unfulfilled expectation. “You didn’t meet the deadline” attacks the person. The shortest pronoun makes for a better opener. “I am disappointed that the deadline wasn’t met” attacks the failure to deliver.

6.  Don’t set apologies in front of your ideas.  This may not be the right spot on the list to make this point about apologies, you may not agree with my ideas about them, and it may be difficult for you to put this advice into practice, but… Get it?

7.  Ask lots of questions.  The best leaders I have been blessed to work with did not have all the right answers. The best leaders I have been blessed to work with did ask the right questions. Thus they taught their followers how to think and successfully held them accountable.

8.  Speak with emotion.  That emotion will vary between conviction, support, anger, appreciation, frustration, contentment, anxiety, aloofness, concern, worry, kindness, confidence, uncertainty, joy, fear, calm, dejection, enthusiasm, worry, and admiration. Too many managers are stuck in a monotonic delivery that conceals their true feelings and robs them of the impact they need to have.

9.  Speak with civility.  There are two noteworthy language trends in corporate America. One is that our politically correct society inserts euphemisms in the place of more traditional but now-offensive language. So “secretaries” have become “admins” and “subordinates” are renamed “direct reports.” The improvement here is your call. What can’t be your call or anyone else’s is the simultaneous acceptance of crudeness and profanity into every sphere of society from the classroom to the corporate boardroom. Steer clear of such trash and you’ll set yourself apart as someone worthy of respect.

10. Punch out final syllables.  The young tend to race through their words. The old-timers among us, and especially those with a bit of hearing loss, have trouble understanding them. If you’re under the age of 40, here’s what will help those in the executive suite understand, and therefore be won over by, your words. Emphasize and distinctly enunciate the final syllables of your words. Focus this effort on the last words in your sentences. This is more usable and more effective advice than is “slow down” or “speak more clearly”.

11. Tell stories.  Notice how the anecdote at the top of this page about the manager and the partner helped to bring you into the mood of this ASK.

12. Give your points more power.  Forget worn-out phrases like “you can’t tell a book by its cover.” Increase the power of suggestion with more colorful language; your claim of interest won’t carry the same weight as your excitement or inspiration. The passive voice (“My commitment to you is shown by…”) isn’t as strong as the active voice (“I show my commitment to you by…”).

13. Keep us interested.  Don’t lose us by overusing any verb, noun, or adjective in the same email, proposal, or speech. Example: Give fast a rest with breakneck, snappy, swift, speedy, or brisk. Become chummy with your thesaurus.

14. Follow the rule of three.  Ideas strung together in a series of three are often more memorable than those in a string of two, four, or more. Consider what would happen to the advice given to the young manager if it were either “think and speak like a partner” or “think, speak, write, and act like a partner.” Not quite the same zing.


Breakthrough!  Vow to keep getting better. A few easy to use resources for continued growth in both speaking and writing are The Art of Plain Talk by Fleisch, The Little English Handbook by Corbett, and The Elements of Style by Strunk and White. The last one is a personal favorite.

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