In this part of my Big Autumn Blog, I’m going to explore how leaders in the voluntary and non-profit sectors should use their personal presence to influence others on behalf on their organisations.
Walking the talk, telling the story
Our impressions are not only shaped by the decisions leaders make when they broadcast to the media, but our personal encounters at networking events, conferences, one-to-one meetings and a whole plethora of occasions formal and informal.
We have certain expectations of these encounters, and of what kind of status we expect leaders to project. While it’s true that some of these may be biases and prejudices that need to be ditched, there are some gold standards which should always be met, albeit through the unique persona of the individual leader.
Some leaders find ingenious ways to justify keeping their skills under-developed and their presence uninspiring. They like to describe this sort of communication as “authentic”.
Although this self-limiting behaviour crops up everywhere, not just in the non-profit sector, there is perhaps a particular vulnerability for this sort of thing in a world where integrity is so important and serving others is paramount. The commendable aim to eschew showing off can lead to abandonment of the responsibility to engage. There is nothing authentic about mumbling, rambling, using jargon or hunching up your shoulders and staring a long list of bullet points on a PowerPoint slide while your audience fidgets.
In fact, there is a disturbing incongruence when a leader mutters about standing up for beneficiaries while stooped over a podium. Whatever words are delivered, standing up for anything doesn’t come across as a credible description of what that leader is doing. Welcoming the spotlight and raising your status within the field (to mix metaphors) are surely requirements of the job.
What leaders in the non-profit sector do have in abundance is a passion for making lives better for their beneficiaries. Yet, quite often, they don’t harness this passion enough as ambassadors for their causes. Passion should be the engine of all their communication with their stakeholders. It shouldn’t be edited out as unprofessional. Passion is persuasive. To avoid deploying it is a strategic mistake.
I am not suggesting anything so coarse as to encourage CEOs to dominate every situation or to weep as they speak of the plight of the hard-done-by. That would be ineffective, and as dangerous as deciding to use every opportunity to plug your helpline no matter what the cost. A great communicator is flexible. It’s not only about having the ability to shift along a scale from dominance to submission and back again – using tone, posture, gesture, pause, proximity, eye contact – but also about having the judgement to decide which is best when. The same goes for how much emotion to use, and to what end. It’s worth bearing in mind that if you can change how people feel, only then do you have a chance of changing how they think, and then what action they subsequently take.
Another key element of using personal appearances effectively is being able to talk naturally but succinctly about what your organisation does. A huge resource that non-profit sector leaders can draw on (in stark contrast to their corporate sector counterparts) is a sense of higher purpose. Nevertheless, when called upon to say a few words about Charity X, a surprising number of CEOs produce a shopping list full of jargon-laden activities. None of that is going to inspire or stick in the minds of listeners. What would stick is a vivid evocation of the purpose. It usually is there, somewhere, buried, and this has never needed to come to the fore more than in this economic climate.
I can always tell when a CEO is managing an organisation which is undergoing big changes from the way she or he speaks about what it does. Invariably, the sentences are long, convoluted and full of qualifying clauses. The delivery is often rapid, as if a pause for breath would reveal the panic at the core of the whole project. A CEO leading an organisation is able to express a vision for the future rather than merely reflect current turmoil. This communication obviously needs more than a glib turn of phrase, but the total absence of any coherent message is not going to help matters. A simple statement which hasn’t had the emotion bled out of it can offer stakeholders a starting point from which to move forward.
I’d suggest this checklist before turning up to a networking event or making a speech at a conference:
- Can I tell people about what we do in three short simple sentences?
- Have I decided how I want my audience to feel about what I’m saying?
- Am I choosing to send out the right signals about my power in this given moment?
- Am I ready to pause enough for people to absorb the key points I’m making?