For years I've enjoyed listening to speakers of all types, trying to identify what makes them successful. Many preachers have developed their skills to a level of fine art, like Charles Swindoll or Joyce Meyers. With rare exceptions like President Barak Obama or, depending upon the event, Sarah Palin, civic and political leaders typically lag far behind religious leaders in polish and presentation. Whoever they are, leaders would do well to forever work at improving their communication skills.
Here are a few practical nuts and bolts:
Speak. The first law of communication is to communicate, so if you want people to get the message, share the message. And you must speak in a vocabulary-as simply as possible-and manner others can understand. Do not do what some professors attempt to do, impress the audience with multiple syllable words. Does not work. When the crowd goes home the only thing they remember is your hubris. Jesus said, "I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me" (John 14: 6) -doesn't get much simpler than that.
Do not apologize for speaking. It's one thing to hear an infrequent speaker offer a nervous apology on the church platform; it's quite another to hear this from a leader. If speaking makes you nervous get over it or get another job. Your apologies for being ill-at-ease makes everyone else ill-at-ease. The more comfortable you are "in your own skin" the more comfortable your audience will be with your presentation.
Convey confidence. Take charge of the speaking opportunity and treat listeners with respect. Say "Thanks," but do not gush. Do whatever it takes to develop your confidence: prepare properly, practice, use notes, etc. Stand physically relaxed and avoid signaling nerves by odd gestures or extraneous movement.
Connect with the audience. Smile. Look directly at people individually and collectively. Scan the entire audience in a natural and measured way so everyone feels you are speaking to them. On the way or at the event, be alert for a development unique to the occasion, than mention it at the beginning of your talk. Former presidential candidate Gary Bauer is a master at this. Every time, dingy old high school auditorium or the Waldorf Astoria, he finds something to say that's distinctive and complimentary to his listeners and their venue. Know your audience and relate directly to them, their town, or their event today. Make them feel special-why comedians exit stage left saying, "You've been a great audience."
Develop a few appropriate one-liners that work anywhere. Old stand-by one-liners-with which you are comfortable-are always there for you like a good friend. They reduce your anxiety, help you convey confidence and connect with the audience, and assist in engaging the audience and helping them relax. One of my favorites goes something like this: "I've always wanted to speak at XYZ. (Short pause) Guess now I can die happy." That one never fails to get a laugh.
Never read your speech. It may be appropriate to read a short formal announcement or a reference to someone else's statement. But reading your content is the fastest way to lose your audience's attention, put them to sleep, or literally lose them as they vote with their feet going out the back door. I once sat in the Michigan Legislature's gallery listening to Governor John Engler deliver his State of the State Address. While I appreciated him and most of his ideas I struggled to stay focused as he ponderously read line after line. You can guess what the opposition party was doing. To the Governor's credit he got better with time, according to a few of his intimates, with professional help and practice. Good for him. Good for his constituency.
Be brief. FDR's "Be sincere; be brief; be seated" is a good rule of thumb for any speaker. In November, 1863, Edward Everett gave the principal speech at the dedication ceremony for a new military cemetery at Gettysburg, followed by President Abraham Lincoln's "Gettysburg Address." Everett later wrote to Lincoln, "I should be glad if I could flatter myself that I came as near to the central idea of the occasion, in two hours, as you did in two minutes."
Tell stories. Jesus generally spoke to crowds of followers in parables, which are short stories from everyday life containing an application of deeper spiritual truths. While more than thirty parables are recorded in the Gospels, in the book of Mark it says Jesus used many other parables in his public speaking ministry. Indeed, "He did not say anything to them without using a parable" (Mark 4: 33-34). People are interested in people and that's what a leader's best stories should be about.
List core values and / or state goals clearly. Put your values and goals into every major presentation. Post why? Because an important way to motivate people is to assure that they know where they are going. Values and goals are part and parcel of a vision speech. Share them, or better yet, as leader embody them. Lead by example.
Be positive. "Negative campaigning" has long since become commonplace in American life. But a leader is better served taking the high road. Ronald Reagan gave us a version of this, his 11th Commandment: "Thou shalt not speak ill of any fellow Republican." Describe who you and your organization are, not who others or competitor organizations are not. Being quoted in media with a sound bite attack on others is more about ego or vengeance than it is about advancing your organization's vision. Nobody follows a flame-thrower for long. The heat's too intense.
Use props to reinforce not replace your speech . PowerPoints, video shorts, pictures, audio, other technology can be enormously effective tools for engaging an audience. But you're still the speaker and, for my money, you need to speak. No media has yet been developed that is as compelling as a passionate person who truly believes what he or she is saying. Use props wisely, but do not forget the natural power of going "unplugged."
Use your same (best) vision speech repeatedly. Leadership expert Barry Z. Posner's formula for good vision communication: "Repetition, repetition, repetition!" Richard Nixon made the point more colorfully, "About the time you are writing a line you have written so often that you want to throw up, that is the time the American people will hear it." Communicate the vision persuasively and persistently at every possible occasion. And do not worry if you're sharing the vision too often. Management consultants Thomas Werner and Robert Lynch recommend leaders communicate their vision 7 times in 7 different ways. I'd say a lot more often than that.
These items are suggestions born of experience, not rules. Some will apply all the time. Some will apply sometimes. It's your judgment call.
You are the leader. Lead with your words.