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Leadership communicators do more than write scripts. They need to help leaders find their human, authentic voice. Jason Laird of Telstra talks about how it’s done.


This article was first published on the IABC Communications World web site.

Tom Morello made his name as guitarist in Rage Against The Machine, a politically incendiary American band synonymous with the U.S. anti-establishment angst of the 1990s. Despite years of heavy touring, Morello hadn’t ever really sung. He had plenty of world views to impart but no voice as a solo artist.

So legendary producer Rick Rubin pushed Morello to “go out and play a hundred shows”—coffee houses, country and western bars, open mic nights—to find what made him a communicator through music. Morello is now acclaimed with a style rough, deep and genuine. You feel his pain for the downtrodden and exploited.

That’s exactly what you should strive for in leadership communication. You help your leaders play their hundred shows and find voices to share ideas, insights and expectations which people will be compelled to follow.

We too often fail our businesses by presenting information in ways that are generic, loaded with jargon or lifeless and misrepresentative of the person who’s quoted. To quote the King of Soul, James Brown, we allow our leaders to be “talkin’ loud and sayin’ nothin.”

The most impactful voices are authentic and unfiltered. Not every note is perfect but it’s real and it has meaning. Of course, there’s risk in all of this, but there’s also amazing reward. We instinctively want to listen to people who are genuine, not reading off metaphorical teleprompters.

So rather than carve stone with the obligatory “how to” manual for leadership communication, learnings can be corralled from the hundreds of shows we’ve witnessed through various corporate executives around the world.

Sharing information is simple to do but really hard to do well. Your role is to build the strongest voice possible for those you support and represent. Read these tips thematically, not literally, as there are always exceptions and spectrums to consider.

  1. The days of broadcast-only communication is dead. Design all communications to start a conversation. Teach your leader to listen as much as speak. Visualise messages on talkback radio and the conversation they create.
  2. Use language everyone can understand: It seems simple, but go back over speeches and releases and see if they read like plain English. Be informal if it suits the leader’s voice—use “it’s” rather than “it is,” “they’re” and “we’re.” Real people talk like that.
  3. Anything from the leader’s pen (or mouth) is better than what you write because they run your business. This is easily disputed because some business leaders never found a corporate bingo phrase they didn’t like, but it’s the right starting point for discussion.
  4. Can you visualise your boss saying the stuff you are writing? If not, start again.
  5. Leadership communication is as much about coaching as communicating. Accentuate the positives, eradicate the clangers.
  6. Protect the “color” with your life. If your boss says “easy peasy” and everyone knows it, find a way to get it into his or her written repertoire.
  7. Social media require another hundred shows, maybe more. Leaders entering Twitter or internal networks such as Yammer should unlearn most of what they thought they knew. Those 140 characters are marvellously liberating but hard work. Internal networks prepare leaders for the troll-ridden outside world. Extra care needs to be taken as we’re all human in what we write and the Internet is forever.
  8. Don’t change spelling mistakes and bad grammer [sic] on forum posts. If your leader takes the time to type with their own clumsy fingers, post as is (within reason). A former boss in the U.S. was accused of being “almost dyslexic” in how he posted on one forum, but it validated readers’ views that he was who he purported to be and credibility followed.
  9. Cherish stories and symbols. If your boss loves sporting stories, use them. However, use caution with military analogies.
  10. Try to have a few trusted custodians of the leader’s communications. Learning the voice takes time and you need someone who can say “yes, that sounds like them.”

All of this leads to the inevitable question: What do you do when your boss is quite dreadful? The same rules predominantly apply, albeit from a different starting point. Your leader might not be connecting because they’re unrehearsed, overconfident, unchallenged in their delivery style, ignorant of local culture or something else. These things are fixable if they want to fix them. Building people into winning communicators is among the most tremendous opportunities. It takes more sweat and courage, but we’re not just here for the easy tasks, are we?

And as communication leaders, you don’t escape the hundred shows requirement. You should be the best at this in your company! The sometimes painful experience of developing your own thing helps you walk in leaders’ shoes. Lack of empathy for the C-suite is a common failure point because people don’t visualise their leader’s moment of delivery and the opportunity for connection, antipathy or humiliation.

History has many examples of otherwise ordinary people who compelled masses to do extraordinary things. We might not be launching uprisings or coaching premiership teams, but we are relied upon to help leaders create value by engaging employees, customers and stakeholders. As Tom Morello learned, finding your voice means finding the way to connect to everyone who’s important to your cause.


About Jason Laird

Jason Laird is executive director of communication and chief social officer for Telstra. His career spans corporate affairs and strategic leadership counsel in Australia, Asia and the United States in companies and politics. Follow him on Twitter: @jasonlaird.