Secrets of Successful Leaders Who Speak Well

By Suzanne Bates

Ben Jonson, the British poet and dramatist once said, “To speak and to speak well are two things. A fool may talk, but a wise man speaks.”   A wise leader knows audiences want to be inspired.  A speech does not have to be long to be powerful.    Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address was 271 words, and it was one of the great speeches of all time. Here are some of the secrets of leaders who speak well.

Secret #1: Talk about Big Ideas: Every speech or presentation needs one big idea. A big idea has a life of its own that lives beyond the leader. President Kennedy launched the modern space program with these words:  “We choose to go to the moon. We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard…because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win.”

Secret #2: Be original: Many leaders give canned speeches. No one likes a canned speech. People see you as a leader when they hear your words, your way. You have to talk about what is true and real to you.  

Arnold Zetcher, President and CEO of Talbots, was being honored a few months after the tragedy of 9/11. He recalled, “The first draft was a basic acceptance speech, and then we thought, ‘Wait a minute, we need to talk about what people are thinking. It has to be about the country.’”  Zetcher and his team created a speech that was in the moment. He says it was one of the best he had ever given.    

Secret #3: Keep it simple: Many speeches try to do too much. Your purpose must be clear; your message must be simple and straightforward.  

Roger Marino, founder of the high-tech giant EMC, grew up in a working class neighborhood on Boston’s north shore, and attended a co-op work program at Northeastern University.    “When I was in college and I didn’t get what the professors were talking about, it was annoying,” he said.   Taking that lesson to business, Marino demanded straightforward messages.   “A CEO has to (be able to) communicate with people and walk them from A to B to C.”

Secret #4:  Be a straight shooter: What people most want in their leaders is honesty and integrity. So, your message must ring true. Audiences want a leader to tell them the truth, no matter what. A reputation for honesty can take you to the top. Sallie Krawcheck was appointed CEO of Citigroup after the corporate scandals of 2001.   She got there because of her honest reputation. She was even dubbed “The Straight Shooter,” by Money magazine.

Secret #5:  Be an optimist: As a leader you face good times and bad; you must balance reality with hope. A hallmark of leadership is optimism. The CEO must see and talk about what’s possible.

When Bill Ford, Jr. became CEO of Ford Motor Company in 2001, the company was losing billions of dollars. Morale was low; Ford Motor was getting hammered about quality. Yet, he didn’t let the nay-sayers win. “We are back on firm footing,” he said at a press conference. “I am very fired up about the results.” Within 20 months, Ford had turned the company around and booked $896 million profit in the first quarter alone.

Secret #6:  Focus on the future: In difficult times, we look to leaders for hope. Hope is a potent message. Focus on the future and what can be done.   New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani demonstrated this after 9/11. “We have,” he declared, “the best police department, fire department, the best police officers, the best fire officers, the best emergency workers of any place in the whole world.”  While the rest of the world was focused on the horror, he focused on the future. “The people in New York City will be whole again. We are going to come out of this emotionally stronger, politically stronger, much closer together as a city, and we’re going to come out of this economically stronger, too.” 

Secret #7:  Be real: As a leader you’re different. Your title or position sets you apart. That puts you at a disadvantage with audiences. To make a connection you have to be yourself; you have to be real.

Dan Wolf, founder and CEO of Cape Air, is warm, self-effacing and genuine with audiences.   Dan isn’t just a businessman; he has his commercial aviation license, and also worked as a mechanic. In town meetings with employees he can relate to pilots as a pilot, to mechanics as a mechanic, to business people as a businessman. “People are interested in the person who is leading the organization,” he said. “They really want to know your feelings, reactions and opinions. If you can share that in a self-effacing way—so they don’t feel like they are watching an ego maniac, but a real human being—you can really connect with people.”      

Secret #8: Stand for something: What inspires most people in the world today is not a paycheck; it’s a chance to be part of something bigger. Leaders who stand for something attract others -they want to be around the leader to see if it’s contagious.

Judy George founded Domain, a chain of designer home furnishing stores, after she was fired as president of another company. By 1998 she had grown her business from 3 to 250 employees, with 23 stores and $50 million in sales. Judy’s success became a legend, especially among women entrepreneurs.   She had bootstrapped her way up.   When she speaks to business groups, she’s treated like a rock star. People line up to speak with her at these events. The lesson, she said, “Is that you have to stand for something. To do that, you have to be willing to reveal something about yourself.”

If you want to take your speaking to the next level, start by assessing your skills right now. Ask a friend or trusted advisor for feedback- someone who sees you speak, knows what makes a good speaker and will be candid. Questions to ask:

  • What do you see as my strengths in speaking?

  • Can you give me a specific example?

  • Where do I need further development?

  • Please give me a specific example.

  • What would be the best way for me to address this need?

  • Please give me feedback on posture and body language, wardrobe and grooming, voice, and executive presence.  

If you have never asked someone for feedback, don’t worry—it’s a great experience. Most people go out of their way to point out your strengths and that’s empowering. Learning where you need to improve will start you on the way to mastering the secrets of great leaders who speak well.

Read other articles and learn more about Suzanne Bates.

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