Leadership is enacted through communication. When it comes to speaking, leaders have many opportunities to influence others from high-stakes strategy presentations to ceremonial remarks at internal functions and public events. Authentic leaders convince audiences to care and are better able to accomplish their goals.
Boardroom presentations matter, but they only account for a small portion of a leader’s communication. Informal interactions during small meetings and ceremonial occasions fill the calendars of many leaders. What leaders say in these moments is important.
The book The Power of Moments by Chip and Dan Heath references a study that identified what people perceive to be the most important events in a person’s life. The top ten, shown in order, are listed below.
Fall in love
If you appreciate how our personal and work lives are inextricably linked, then you’ll see how we have opportunities to lead in so many of life’s most important events. Leadership is enacted through communication at milestone events such as graduations, coming-of-age celebrations, weddings, retirement parties, and even funerals.
Ceremonial presentations provide an opportunity for leaders to inspire others. Take a moment and think about your observations of leaders in your own life during life’s important moments. To help you reflect, let’s imagine the characteristics of two leaders.
Leader A: When this individual speaks, they have a clear point. They capture in words something you have felt but may not have been able to articulate yourself. They appear authentic. Even if you don’t interact with the person, you trust them.
Leader B: When this individual speaks, their point isn’t clear. You don’t feel connected with them on a personal level, and you sometimes wonder how they achieved the position they are in.
Chances are you have worked for people with characteristics of both Leader A and Leader B. My hope for you is that you’ll see the value in striving to be more like Leader A. Now, let’s consider the communication behavior of these leaders in a professional and a personal situation.
New Employee Orientation: On your first day of work, Leader A helps connect what you do to the mission of the organization. Leader A helps you see, even if you are in an entry level position, how your function is vital to the success of the organization. Leader B, on the other hand, offers an unorganized and generic welcome message. Leader B appears to have a poor understanding of the concerns of the audience and seems out of touch.
You Have a Baby: The big day finally arrives and your child is born. Leader A reaches out shortly after to check in on the family. During a brief conversation, Leader A shares a personal anecdote about being a parent and uses the interaction as a time to reinforce the organizational value of work-life balance, suggesting how family has always been their first priority. Leader B does not personally acknowledge this major life event, but does include their signature on a card signed by everyone in the department.
While many variables influence the effectiveness of a leader, I suspect you’d agree that you are likely to work harder for and that you’d predict greater success from Leader A.
How leaders make others feel does not receive enough attention in communication planning and is an essential part of creating positive relationships and a healthy organizational culture. Successful leaders understand the role emotion plays in capturing attention and developing trust. They understand how showing vulnerability will improve their ability to connect with others and that stories make messages more memorable and meaningful.
In times of celebration and times of adversity, in both formal and informal settings, leaders can use their words to guide followers about how to feel, think, and act. Lessons from ceremonial presentations can inform workplace communications that could be used at grand openings, onboarding meetings, keynote events, and transitional moments like promotions, first days, and project completion. If you’d like to hear me speak about some of these ideas, watch my eCornell interview on Facebook.