Non-Profit Sector Leaders and the Demands of Ambassadorship Part 1: Bad communication makes for bad reputation

There’s a fuzzy line between leaders and the organisations they lead.

They are not the same thing yet we assume the leader is not only a figurehead but an incarnation of the larger entity – a whole complex mass of projects and departments and practices made flesh. More prosaically, how a leader communicates determines how the wider organisation is perceived internally and externally. And our inferences are often correct: lacklustre communication is a pretty good indicator of lacklustre leadership which in turn indicates poor effectiveness throughout the organisation.

This is true on both the macro and the micro level. The macro level – the continuing narrative of how a leader communicates either overtly through press releases, or more subtly through choices about the workplace environment – is down to planning and implementing a coherent communication strategy. The micro level, what the leader says and how, in any given moment – at a particular networking event for instance – also counts. The impact is registered by both those who are present and those who hear about the event afterwards.

Ultimately, it’s about telling a story that rings true, that is consistent yet compelling.

For leaders of charities and voluntary organisations, this is critical particularly now. They are in the spotlight as never before. The state is withdrawing from the areas where it traditionally made provision. There are widespread expectations that the voluntary sector will step in and provide solutions. At the same time, dwindling resources suggest that a great many organisations will have to merge or fold. For those still standing, there will be an increased urgency to put forward persuasive arguments on behalf of their beneficiaries.

In some circumstances, a leader can change how the whole sector is perceived through what he or she says. There are as many opportunities as pitfalls.

This ambassadorial responsibility is not always taken as seriously or with the degree of imagination that it should be. And there are grave consequences for those organisations with leaders who fail to commit to this endeavour or who make big mistakes for short-term gains.

Take heed of the cautionary tale of Christine Pratt, CEO of the erstwhile National Bullying Helpline (NBH). Back in 2010, the UK was freshly battered by economic crisis and there was a distinct sense that public was dissatisfied with its political leaders. The then Prime Minister Gordon Brown was being criticised for his communication style, which allegedly included hurling paperweights across the room when enraged by his interlocutors.

When Mrs Pratt learned that the NBH had received calls from individual staff members at Downing Street complaining of workplace bullying, she leapt into action. She called the press.

It’s easy to see how Mrs Pratt would have perhaps congratulated herself on spotting an opportunity to promote her organisation and its work on bullying. However, this tactical exploitation of a topical issue was ultimately a strategic disaster.

If you tell your callers that “your call is confidential to us and you will be treated with dignity and respect at all times”, and then announce the news of their calls to the media, you are clearly not communicating in accordance with your professed values. And what kind of ambassador sacrifices integrity for visibility?

Patrons, including Conservative MP Ann Widdecombe, dropped the NBH like a hot brick. The NBH was swiftly placed under scrutiny by the Charity Commission, and criticism spread beyond the ethics of confidentiality.

Even after the NBH folded, intrigue followed Mrs Pratt in the shape of complaints over conflicts of interest and over the poor handling of an investigation into an employment dispute in March 2010. According to the Telegraph, when a hearing in Newcastle was told that Mrs Pratt had a national reputation for her work, the panel chairman remarked dryly: “She certainly does now.”

This debacle threatened to damage not only the reputation of one woman and her helpline, but the reputation of helplines in general.

In the Summer 2010 edition of ACEVO network magazine, Rekha Wadhwani, CEO of The Helplines Association (THA) – a 500 member umbrella association –  wrote frankly about how she had used the NBH PR disaster as a trigger for her own campaign, sensing an opportunity for restoring faith in helplines and for arguing for a change in policy.

Ms Wadhwani’s strategy was to reach out with separate messages to three different stakeholders – different objectives for different audiences: a press release to national and industry media assuring the public that THA members are required to have standards of confidentiality in order to hold membership; a written promise to members and key partners to uphold their reputation; and a reaching out to regulatory bodies to begin a dialogue on improving confidentiality policies.

Resulting press coverage created the impetus for Ms Wadhwani to campaign for tighter regulation. Her leadership –  her decision to communicate effectively at a key moment –  may have saved the good name of UK helplines. It certainly would have done her own profile no harm at all.

A communication strategy is not something you can merely delegate to the PR department, if you have one. You should consider how your personal interventions can shift perceptions seismically. You don’t need to do a lot; you just need to get it right when you do. Sticking your neck out above the parapet is vital if you want to influence policy and public opinion.

However, these might be good questions to ask yourself first:

  • Am I, the leader of X, the best person to make this point?
  • Have I checked my message to make sure that it’s congruent with our values, vision and mission?
  • What is the climate like? Turbulent? Optimistic?
  • Is the timing right for an intervention?
  • Have I thought about how I will respond to the dialogue I’ve initiated with the whole range of stakeholders?
  • Do I have a plan of how I want to shape the dialogue, with ideas about how I will follow up my intervention?
  • Do I have an eventual outcome in mind, which is achievable?



Home practice: How to continue your development beyond training sessions

As term comes to an end yet again at City University, London, I find myself wanting to send another bunch of dedicated Presentation Skills students on their way with some tips for home practice. After the routine of a weekly session, they now will have to take ownership over their own development all by themselves.

Yes, coaching sessions for ad hoc challenges are a great idea, and indeed may of my clients do come back me to structure and rehearse for the interview, the conference presentation, or the best man speech.

However, it’s the regular maintenance side of things that seems more difficult to attend to. If you too have had the benefit of coaching or training sessions in the physical work of communication – voice, body-language or breathing exercises – you may be wondering how to keep up the good work when you don’t have a coach or workshop leader standing by, urging you on and offering corrections where needed.

People often ask me if I ever run drop-in classes, or whether there’s a weekly session they can attend which will take care of all their communication skills needs. Well, not exactly. But there are still steps you can take.

Any classes that help you connect your body, brain and breathing are very useful. For instance, any martial arts or yoga can provide some good back-up. Personally, I’m a Pilates fan, and the classes I go to really help me improve my posture and flexibility.

However, you will still have to do your own work of connecting it up to the purpose of having better posture at your desk, or having good alignment for healthy voice use. It’s not your aikido or yoga teacher’s job to join up the dots for you.

Especially if your budget is tight, you’ll need to make sure you get best value from the investment you’ve already made in your own development. So a completely free – and very effective – solution is to create your own home practice.

Here’re a few guidelines:


Develop your self-awareness

Self-awareness is key for good communication. Take time out of your day for a quick moment to monitor how you are currently breathing, where you’ve tensed your body, if any area feels tight or sore, or how free your spine feels… Is there any rigidity in your knees or hips will get in the way of standing up with assurance in front or an audience? Has stress made your breathing shallow, so that you don’t have enough air to use your voice with energy? You can’t make any changes for the better if you don’t know what’s going on with you and your body.

Identify what needs fixing

Once you know what is out of kilter, you can get rid of the problems. Sometimes just noticing your shoulders are hunched will liberate you to release them. Some people hold their breath when they feel stressed. If you do find yourself cutting off your air supply, release your out-breath slowly, blowing out until you find yourself naturally breathing in, deeply.

Commit to a short daily routine

This routine isn’t necessarily to fix problems, but rather to keep the machine well-oiled so few problems will arise through the day. And I do mean daily. This doesn’t need to be a grind. It can be really short, in between 2 to 3 minutes. This is approximately the same time commitment you would make to brushing your teeth. You DO brush your teeth, don’t you?

Start with the exercises you love and you know will give you an immediate pay-off. Also consider giving the exercises you tend to resist a whirl, as they may be just the medicine you need. You may even get to enjoy them as they work their magic.


Don’t make it all a chore. Your approach will be more effective if you see it as an exploration rather than a task. Some days you will surprise yourself. Enjoy discoveries and be kind to yourself. You can really help your voice along by singing or humming in the bath and shower!

Keep growing, don’t give up!

You will be making small imperceptible changes all the time. Of course, you’ll reach plateaus. That’s when it’s time to vary the exercises, to try something new or in a new order. It’s a lifetime’s work and no one ever becomes so expert that no further improvement is possible.


Can introverts be charismatic public speakers?

Reluctant public speakers sometimes tell me that they’ll never be any good at inspiring audiences because they’re not extrovert enough. Actually I don’t believe introversion is the barrier to persuasive public speaking that many believe it to be.

I recently read Susan Cain’s excellent book “Quiet. The Power of Introverts In A World That Can’t Stop Talking” which articulated her concerns as an introvert about how to manage in a world that idealises extraversion. One of the major challenges she identifies for herself as an introvert is handling a phobia of public speaking. That said, she describes several known introverts who nonetheless manage to enthral audiences. She herself has become an accomplished speaker as you can see in her TED talk.

It’s true that at first glance introverts don’t seem to have the right temperament to wow crowds. However, introverts have some innate talents which are very useful for public speaking. Moreover, in some circumstances introverts can take on some useful extrovert characteristics without going as far out of their comfort zone as they would imagine.

I’ve witnessed many introverts develop their own style and, with practice over time, grow in confidence as charismatic persuaders of large audiences.

If you are an introvert, the following may well apply to you:


Introvert talents

High reactivity – This is not an exclusively introvert trait, but it is very common among introverts. It means that you have a heightened response to the stimuli around you. At worst, it can seem like overload. At best, it makes you vigilant to cues around you, such as your audience smiling as a particular point resonates with their experience, or individuals frowning as they disagree with a suggestion. Your observations can equip you to make subtle physical adjustments and changes of tack to create better rapport with your audience and win the argument.

Storytelling – Many of the key skills of good storytelling are ones that come naturally to introverts. Building a structure which is resonant, making sensitive choices about what mood or moods to convey, and identifying details which will illuminate the general picture –  these are all activities which can be done in quiet solitude. This gift for meticulous preparation work is as important for storytelling as in-the-moment extrovert attributes, such as a capacity to vary intonation and to be expressive through facial mobility.

Character and conviction – There is something very compelling about listening to someone who addresses an audience from a position of quiet conviction. A speaker displaying the gamut of emotions is not necessarily more effective. What is effective is creating emotion in the audience, and this is achievable for any personality type. An introvert’s sincerity can be a credible ambassador for a bold vision.


Tips for handling the challenges you face as an introvert

De-sensitise yourself to your fear – A tried-and-tested cure for phobias is to gradually expose yourself to the object of your phobia, initially in very dilute form until the real deal holds no terror for you. I recommend inventing reasons at run-of-the-mill meetings to get out of your chair and hold forth standing up, even for 20 seconds to begin with. This is a chance to turn the meeting group into a bona fide audience. A flipchart board is a very handy prop. All you need to do is draw a pie chart or write up one significant word. Yes, it will supply more drama than a three person meeting actually needs. And yes, you will be taking action in circumstances in which solutions could easily be arrived at over an informal chat without this kind of palaver. This is exactly why this is a good opportunity to practice being in the spotlight, albeit very briefly. The risks and stakes are very low. Then, when you have to do a proper presentation it won’t seem so alien and you won’t have as many negative associations to combat.

Make sure you care about what you’re talking about – If you have mixed feelings about the message, identify the aspects you do connect to and foreground those. If you find yourself constantly at odds with your message, this will constantly undermine your presentation. Ultimately, it will undermine you. This is true for all personality types but, according to Cain, introverts seem to suffer even more when their feelings are not congruent with the message. And if an introvert is really mobilised by passion for the topic, they seem to unselfconsciously “borrow” extrovert attributes of expressiveness.

Use breathing techniques to deal with nerves and tension – You will still perhaps find yourself not relishing your turn in the limelight as much as an extrovert. If fact, your physiology may be telling you that you are in mortal danger. Regulate your brain and body through your breath. Allow yourself to gently blow air out through your mouth until your lungs are completely empty, squeeze out the last little bit, and breathe in again when you need to. Do this five times, noticing how each time the out-breath is becoming calmer and longer. If you’re subtle about your mouth position as you blow the air out, you can do this with impunity in any situation – as you set up your laptop or while you listen to the speaker in the slot ahead of you. You won’t attract undue attention; after all, you’re only breathing!