How to speak like a leader. Lessons from leadership coaching

Great leaders speak like leaders.

Most leaders agree that communication skills are their number one skill. When we see or hear leaders speak well, it’s easy to believe they have a natural talent for it. However, after ten years of coaching CEOs, CFOs and Senior Executives, we’ve seen that anybody can transform their leadership communications.

In the same way that you can become a better cyclist, runner or tennis player, you can become a better communicator.  It just takes knowledge and practice to speak like a leader.

At BBA, we have developed a methodology that can help you become a great communicator – and fast. That why some of the largest organisations use us to coach their top talent.

Below we share some of the ideas behind our approach.

How to speak like a leader – top tips

  1. Understand that your audience is selfish
  2. Don’t dilute your leadership message
  3. Simplicity is clarity
  4. Speak to the heart and speak to the head
  5. Use more powerful language
  6. Start strong & end strong
  7. Lead with a message, not with slides
  8. Dedicate time to practise

1. Speak like a leader: Your audience is selfish

Effective leaders take people on a journey. They show others how to travel from the imperfect present to a better future. But to get people to join you, you need to understand – and empathise – and show them that you have their interests at heart.

For example, one of our clients is the MD of a large utility company.

A few months ago he needed to give a Health and Safety presentation to hundreds of staff. He knew his audience would come to the talk with a ‘couldn’t care less’ attitude.

But he wanted them to understand that safety was critically important to their company. So, he started with a story.

He said, “A few years ago I was managing a building site. In my first two weeks on a new job, we had a crane collapse on site. That night, I had to knock on a door – and tell a woman that her husband was dead –
all because of an accident on my site.

“I never want any of you to have to go through what I went through that day. And that’s why we are talking about health and safety today.”

In fewer than 80 words, our client had grabbed their attention and opened their minds.  All because he understood their self-interest. From then on, he knew they were listening.

2. Speak like a leader: Don’t dilute your message

If you mix red and blue paint, you get green.  If you mix yellow and red, you get orange.  But if you mix red, green, blue and a few others, you will end up with a dull brown mess.

Talks and presentations are the same.  Too many ideas dilute what you say and muddy your messages. Your talk will be more vivid with fewer but stronger messages.

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3. Speak like a leader: Simplicity is clarity

Complex ideas are hard to understand and easy to forget. When you speak like a leader, you make the complex simple. This takes time. As US President Woodrow Wilson said: “If I am to speak ten minutes, I need a week for preparation; if fifteen minutes, three days; if half an hour, two days; if an hour, I am ready now.”

Some quick ways of being a clearer communicator include:

  1. Cut your long sentences into short phrases. The shorter the better.
  2. Use short, simple words. This will make you appear more intelligent, capable and confident.
  3. Include plenty of pauses – one every 6-10 words. You’ll sound more authoritative.

Steve Jobs said,

“Simple can be harder than complex. You have to work hard
to get your thinking clean to make it simple.
But it’s worth it in the end because once you get there, you can move mountains.”

4. Speak like a leader: Speak to the heart as much as the head

Great leaders never underestimate how important it is to help people feel good. People will only listen to you if they want to.

As Carol Buchner said: “They may forget what you said, but they will never forget how you made them feel.”

How you say what you say will therefore help them to listen. Here are some proven techniques:

  1. Tell relevant stories to bring an idea to life.
  2. Use personal pronouns (I, we, us and you) so what you say feels more personal.
  3. Show that you care by sharing your personal feelings.
  4. Use language that conveys emotion. For example, talk about hope, excitement, passion and fear.

See how Sam Laidlaw, former CEO of Centrica incorporated many of these ideas in this talk at the Royal Society of Arts:

“Thank you James and good evening everyone. It is a great privilege
to give a speech in such a beautiful and historic room.

“I am told this is where Alexander Graham Bell demonstrated the telephone,
and Marconi, the radio. I can’t promise such a technological revolution today.
But I do want to talk about a revolution in our industry.

“The energy sector has been through some exhilarating – and challenging – times.
From the discovery of North Sea Oil and Gas to the liberalisation of our energy markets,
we have seen remarkable change in recent decades.

“When I first joined the energy sector in 1981….”

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5. Speak like a leader: Use more powerful language

Pick words that are lively and fun. Some quick tricks include using more contrasts, metaphors and repetition.

  1. Use contrast to imply balance

    (e.g. “There’s nothing wrong with America that cannot be cured by what is right with America”).

    “It’s not about yesterday; it’s not about today.  It’s all about tomorrow.”

    Listen to any great leader talk and you’ll hear their presentations packed full of contrasts.

  2. Metaphors and analogies are shortcuts for the brain.

    They help you turn a complicated concept into a familiar one.

    Steve Jobs was a master of the metaphor, describing computers as a ‘bicycle for the mind’ and referring to Apple’s switch to different processors as ‘a huge heart transplant’.

  3. Spoken language is very different to written language.

    For example,  Repetition is poetic and rhythmic to our ears.

    Some of the most memorable lines from speeches use repetition. E.g.  “We shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills. We shall never surrender!’.

Notice how Sir Stuart Rose (former CEO M&S) uses these techniques in this awards ceremony speech:

“Ladies and Gentlemen – it’s a pleasure to be here this afternoon
at the BCE Environmental Leadership Awards.

“I’m especially pleased to be speaking to you on a subject
I feel so strongly about – sustainability.

“These awards recognise businesses of all sizes – from start-ups to multinationals –
who are winning the battle of meeting today’s commercial demands,
without compromising resources for future generations.

“It is a challenge we all face – but with that challenge comes opportunity.”

6. Speak like a leader: Start powerfully and end powerfully

The most important part of your speech is the start. If you start your talk well, (I mean the first 10 words) you will sound more like a leader.

Never use the words “Good morning, my name is XXX and I am here today to talk about…”

You can read more here about how to start your talks powerfully. We’ve got examples of four powerful ways to start your speech here.

The second most important part of your speech is the end.  Your speech should have a clear goal. For example, to change attitudes, to change behaviour or to inspire action. The start of your speech hooks your audience; the middle persuades them, and the end seals the deal with a powerful thought or call to action.

We share five ways to finish your speech with impact here.

7. Speak like a leader: Lead with a message, not a set of slides

If you use slides with your talk, make sure they work.  To re-use the words of poet Andrew Lang: “Most people use PowerPoint like a drunk uses a lamp post – for support rather than illumination.”

What does that mean?  Here are the secrets the best speakers use:

  1. Create slides AFTER preparing your talk, not before.
  2. Use slides as visual aids not handouts – i.e. they add value by illustrating your argument, not repeating what you have said
  3. Check that each slide can be read and understood in 3 seconds, so the audience can get back to listening to you, the speaker

Read more about why you need to create a message-led (rather than slide-led) presentation here.

8. Speak like a leader: Put the time in to practise.

You would never run a marathon without training.  So why try to give an important talk without proper preparation? The best leaders prepare every communication with respect for the task they face.

Careful speech preparation means you capture the flow, rhythm and confidence that comes from fine-tuning.

By the time you get up and speak you should know what you are saying inside out – and have tested every important idea. Then, when you finally go live, you can pay attention to your audience’s reaction and whether your delivery is making the impact you want.

We can help you get there faster.

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How our leadership coaching will help you speak like a leader

At Benjamin Ball Associates we’ve spent over ten years supporting major organisations with important communications. We work with leaders from all types of businesses helping them transform their leadership communications.

Working with us, you get practical, easy-to-implement advice that helps you grab attention, make an impact and remain memorable. We build skills, effectiveness and confidence – and we do this every day.

Call our Client Services Director, Louise Angus on +44 (0)20 7018 0922 or email to discuss how we can help you today.

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About Benjamin Ball Associates

Benjamin Ball Associates Team

At Benjamin Ball Associates, we help leaders to pitch, present & persuade.

Over the last 12+ years the award-winning BBA team has supported thousands of executives globally to present powerfully. You get access to a transformational toolbox of techniques to help you become a clear, confident communicator.

We’ll help you create a powerful first impression that hooks and engages your audience immediately and we’ll transform you to deliver clearly, confidently and with impact.

Speak to Louise on +44 20 7018 0922 or email to find out more and discuss your upcoming talk or presentation.

Contact us to transform your leadership communications

Contact us for a chat about how we can help you with your presenting.

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Contact us for a chat about how we can help you with your presenting.

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