Industry Watch

Mastering the spoken word

On the stage or person-to-person, persuasive speaking is key for effective leadership

By Brian Martucci
Wednesday, April 20, 2016

For many business leaders, public speaking is a chore, not a hobby. Others don’t mind it so much — but they’re not about to quit their day jobs. It’s rare to encounter someone who can step on stage or stand up in a boardroom and clearly, fluently, persuasively hold forth, hitting all the right notes along the way.

“Maybe 25% of the general public is able to communicate in a way that really connects with people,” says Dave Dickey, serial public speaker and founder of Second Story Sales, a sales coaching consultancy that helps clients craft and deliver persuasive pitches. (Dickey admits, though, that he himself has a speaking coach!)

Right jockey, right horse

Dickey’s clients often come to him for help selling ideas: an early-stage startup, a new product or service, a strategic vision. These ideas, he says, are like horses. The people presenting them, and their support teams, are the jockeys.

A pitch audience sizes up an idea like a bettor at the racetrack. When all is said and done, the trial comes down to two questions: Is the horse built to make it across the finish line? And can the jockeys get it there?

“To sell your idea, you need to make the case that the answer to both is ‘yes,’” says Dickey.  

Persuasive speaking for all

Of course, not all public speech is sales-oriented. Anett Grant, Minneapolis-based (by way of Montreal) speech coach and founder of Executive Speaking Inc., is happy to expound on the value of persuasive speaking in other settings. Her clients (typically global executives and rising corporate stars) seek her out for:

  • Help landing top jobs: “Great work doesn’t always speak for itself,” says Grant. “You must master your content and delivery.” Many boards look for compelling communication “vision,” she adds, not just dour pragmatism.
  • Multicultural/multilingual communication: In a globalized economy, leaders need to communicate effortlessly across cultural lines. About 25% of Grant’s clientele speaks English as a second language, and she’s increasingly working with native-English Minnesotans looking to build bridges with the state’s growing Somali, Hmong and Hispanic communities.
  • Analyst meetings: Publicly traded companies expect leaders to communicate clearly and effectively with stock analysts, emphasizing the positive and spinning the negative. 
  • Media training: How to be the voice of the company, from radio and TV to YouTube.

Hi-tech peer feedback studio

The growth of technology has aided speech coaches by giving feedback to students so they can listen to how they sound and watch how they look. At first it was just audio recording, and when Grant started her career, video feedback was coming into its own. Now, she believes we’re on the cusp of another technological revolution incorporating instant peer feedback. That’s the basis for her new venture: Leadership Speaking Bootcamp 360, which she runs with the help of “communications leader” Zach Butzler.

“We believe Bootcamp will disrupt the way speaking is trained,” Grant says, just as video playback did a generation ago.

Leadership Speaking Bootcamp 360’s half-day to two-day group workshops take place in a “state-of-the-art studio” with three huge screens (including a gigantic 85-incher) and customized software that “aggregate[s] feedback and comments” from other participants.

The result: “panoramic peer feedback,” delivered in real time that cuts through the clutter and confusion of post-performance analysis, much as a well-delivered persuasive diatribe cuts through complexity and ambiguity. Grant’s model replaces the exhaustive “360-degree” analyses of yore — detailed, printed reports that ran up to 100 pages and couldn’t provide real-time feedback.

By speeding up and modernizing the coaching process, Grant hopes to reach far more people than she ever could through private coaching alone.

“My heartfelt goal is to share what I’ve learned over the years with as many people as possible,” says Grant. “I’m not going to be here forever.”

You can do it, if you try

The hard truth Grant and Dickey are selling is not in dispute: Persuasive leaders are effective leaders. If you believe you’re not getting through to your superiors, underlings, customers or whoever else, it’s time to quite literally take a look in the mirror.

“Inertia is a very real force of nature,” says Dickey. “We need a real reason to seek change. Otherwise, it’s too easy to continue doing what we’ve always done.”