As a leader, are you really communicating when you speak to people, or are you just talking at them?

Whenever my team work with executives on their presence and impact, we often challenge the presentation advice they have received in the past – because we find they have not been taught the skills they need to speak as an authentic leader.  

Presentation training is all too often about projection, how to transmit. But the fact of the matter is, the most influential and authentic leaders are those who are able to speak to their audiences and listen at the same time, as if they are involved in a relaxed conversation – a two way process. 

The 50% rule

If you think about it, when you are talking with friends, colleagues, clients, stakeholders or investors, why would you want to appear any differently to how you would in a relaxed conversation, in your own natural style? Only if you believe you should be perceived as someone different to who you really are, I imagine – which is fundamentally inauthentic. I don’t think many business leaders would sign up for that if they really thought about it because they would know that no one would trust them. 

The reality is, for years and years senior leaders who have attended presentation training programmes at earlier stages in their careers have been led (and trained) to believe that in order to give a great presentation they need to change the way they speak by altering tone, body language and choice of words. All the advice is generally on projecting oneself as an impressive, articulate, confident person with a clear focus on delivering a message fluently.

I challenge this outdated approach. If you believe, as I do, that good business relationships are built on trust, then surely this is also fundamental in how we should measure the success, or impact, of our communications. 

Listening and observing

Relaxed conversations work best as a communication style because they are always two way. If you analyse speech and behaviour using video and audio analysis tools, as we do at Black Isle, you can see that in almost every case 50% of a relaxed conversation is silence – when either the speaker or the receiver is listening and observing their listener to receive a response. So when training presentation skills shouldn’t you also embed listening and observational skills at the same time? They are an intrinsic part of the communication process we use to gain trust when we speak. 

As an example of someone who gets it right – and really listens while he talks – watch Ken Robinson deliver the most viewed TED Talk of all time. 

I estimate from my conversations with clients that over 80% of training courses on basic presentation skills have not only been a complete waste of time, but they have also reduced the effectiveness of their ability to communicate as a leader. 

Some of the exercises I have heard about are completely self-defeating. For example, have you ever been asked to speak non stop for a minute on a subject of your choice (or a random topic) and then critiqued afterwards because you had to stop and think? Encouraging someone to keep talking without stopping is hardly a skill that you want to develop in future leaders.

Trusted as authentic

To really communicate effectively as a leader you need to learn how to be trusted as authentic.  To do this you need the skills to be able to have a relaxed conversation with your audience whenever you speak – whether networking, small group discussions, boardroom meetings or public speaking events.  It’s not as easy as it sounds, especially when you are under pressure, but it is possible with the right mindset, the right advice and the right coaching.

Next time you find yourself up in front of an audience think to yourself; am I having a relaxed conversation and am I observing the 50% rule? 


At Black Isle Group, we transform the performance of people and businesses through a unique blend of our world-class expertise and innovative technology. Find out how we’re empowering the new world of work >>


Tim Richardson,
Founder, Black Isle Group
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