The terrorist crisis in Europe has heightened the visibility and actions of world leaders. Every speech is carefully dissected and analyzed by political pundits and news commentators. They look for hidden meanings, they take comments out of context, and they make pronouncements on limited data. Depending on the coverage, a national leader may appear strong and decisive, or weak and bumbling. Sometimes the optics take on more importance than the content or the intent.
We often hear that “words matter,” and we know that language underscores both our politics and our policies. We also recognize that language doesn’t just reflect our values, but it can shape them as well. Good examples of great leaders and their lasting words are “Lincoln’s “Gettysburg Address” and Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech.
What do we expect in a great speech—wisdom, empathy, authenticity, strength, agility, confidence, clarity, great oratory? How important is timeliness? What about the optics? Are they an essential component for a successful and memorable speech in today’s world? Are accuracy and truth still required, or can the facts be manipulated with impunity?
As observers, it’s easy to critique and criticize someone else’s speech. Did it inspire? Did it hold our interest? Did we learn something or was it boring? Was it enjoyable? Did we agree with the content?
When we are the speaker, however, critique might be harder to come by and harder to hear. It is difficult to be objective about our own words and our personal presentation style. If you are the boss, your employees may be reluctant to offer criticism, even constructive criticism.
As you rise to a leadership position at work or in your field, take advantage of every opportunity to build your presentation skills and style. Few people are good at extemporaneous speaking, and not all leaders are “quick on their feet.” If possible, get some media training or input from experts. Spend some time preparing, not just for big events with high visibility, but for the everyday presentations you make to staff or management or to groups in your local community.
Leadership isn’t limited to what we do. What we say can be equally or even more important than our actions. You can, and should, lead by example, but you need words to inspire and inform others.