Communication is the real work of leadership: Articulating a vision. Breathing life into professed values. Challenging the status quo. Engaging people’s heads, hearts, and hopes.
A lot of that communication is in day-to-day conversation, in meetings, and other routine interactions. But some of it also comes in the form of speeches or presentations. Death-by-PowerPoint is unacceptable. The best recipe for communication success is the careful use of plain language.
Chuck Garcia understands that recipe. A 25-year veteran of Wall Street and corporate America, he now coaches business executives on effective communication practices.
His new book is A Climb to the Top: Communication & Leadership Tactics to Take Your Career to New Heights.
If you take communication seriously (and you should), Garcia’s counsel is worth considering.
Rodger Dean Duncan: Most great communicators are aware of the “hazardous half minute” — those first few seconds of a presentation when you either hook or lose your audience. What’s your advice for successfully launching a presentation?
Chuck Garcia: Scrap the conventional pleasantries and dull introductions. Launch into something bold and deliver the unexpected to establish rapport and build instant credibility. Seek to build suspense from the opening scene. Two good examples include:
- Unearth a mysterious date. Look for a date in history that will puzzle people. The intrigue will keep them hanging in anticipation of the punch line.
- Find an intriguing news headline. Audiences appreciate something timely they can relate to. State the headline and discuss the implication to capture their interest, then tie it to something relevant in their business.
Duncan: You write about the Primacy/Recency Effect. What is that, and how can the communicator use it to advantage?
Garcia: There’s a mountain of scientific evidence that people remember the first things they hear, not immediately what follows. They also perceive information presented early as more valuable and meaningful than what follows. This is the Primacy Effect. The Recency Effect proves that people also remember the last thing you say. They’ll have a tough time retaining the middle.
All great communicators make lasting impressions by devoting their attention to make the open and close surprising, provocative, and memorable.
The Primacy Effect is your opportunity to make a great first impression. With the Recency Effect, leave them with a powerful call to action. Ask yourself, “What do I want my audience to think, feel, or do when this is over?” If you start and end with a bang, you blend the most important ingredients to make a lasting impression.
Duncan: Research shows that emotion precedes reason. Yet some business people seem addicted to cold facts and statistics and are leery of emotional appeals. How do you coach them out of their addiction?
Garcia: By helping them realize this cold, hard reality: It doesn’t work! When you consider why someone presents figures and statistics, it’s likely they are trying to persuade the audience to do something. Buy this product! Vote for that candidate!
However, the approach is usually monotonous. The only impact is the negative thoughts the audience feels about the presenter. No one wants to be remembered for that.
Watch good television commercials and consider what they have in common. They don’t use logic or communicate in facts, figures, and statistics. Instead, they employ a basic tenet in sales and advertising: “People buy on emotion, and support that decision with logic.” Effective messages tug at our heartstrings. Emotion guides our major decisions. Keep that in mind as you seek to persuade others. Leave the statistics behind.
Duncan: Poet Maya Angelou said “People will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” How does that apply to a results-focused business leader?
Garcia: Since we speak at a rate of about 125 words per minute, people won’t recall the precise words you deliver or the way you present your ideas. However, how did you make others feel? Inspired? Enlightened? Motivated? Leaders who provoke change make people feel good about what they are doing and challenge them to keep trying in spite of any obstacles. It’s that extra effort employees make that is the difference between average and extraordinary.
Duncan: Authenticity and vulnerability are two popular words in today’s lexicon. What’s their application in the coaching you give to business people?
Garcia: A leader’s primary goal is to connect in a personal way with each member of the organization. That connection is critical to establish a relationship that ultimately fosters interpersonal trust. Trust is the bedrock of effective collaboration.
I’ve coached hundreds of executives in the corporate world. My most successful clients are those who come across as genuine and humble, not perfect and infallible.
People appreciate candor. Show some vulnerability and people will identify more easily with you. Try discussing a failure or challenge you fought hard to overcome. It’s a highly effective approach to establishing a personal connection.
Duncan: In this age of TED talks and 140-character tweets, what can we learn from a 19th century communicator like Mark Twain?
Twain’s powerful quotes and phrases, usually less than 140 characters, are essential ingredients in my speech recipe book. When he gave a speech, Twain made his listeners laugh, cry, and cheer. The foundation of his talks? Stories that people found funny, relatable, and easy to pass on to others.
Twain was a master storyteller. He organized his speeches into small pieces and short sentences. He tactically used rhetorical devices like compare/contrast, metaphors, and pauses for dramatic effect to allow his words to resonate.
When you review the most watched TED talks, you’ll find common threads. Although the content of many TED talks is serious, they are infused with humor, often told in story form that the listeners find easy to digest and even simpler to remember. We should take lessons from Twain’s playbook: Aim to charm and captivate your audience, and keep in mind, “The right word may be effective, but no word was ever as effective as a rightly timed pause.”