Few people would dispute Elon Musk is a visionary. But when he talks about Tesla, “he always talks about what it’s like to drive in the car, what it’s like to look at the car and how the doors work.” His words paint pictures. His vision is cast in the present tense.
Noah Zandan, cofounder of Quantified Communications and a leading exponent of using big data and analytics to improve communications, says visionary leaders are surprisingly grounded in how they speak.
After assessing “hundreds of transcripts of visionary leaders,” Zandan came away with three surprising key takeaways:
- “We thought visionaries would talk a lot about the future, but in fact they talked about the present.”
- “We thought visionaries would really be complex thinkers, but in fact what they’re really concerned with is making things simple and breaking it down into steps.”
- “We thought the visionaries would be really concerned with their own vision, but in fact they’re more concerned with getting their vision into the minds of their audience.”
In practical terms, Zandan says that means speech using a lot of “perceptual language, talking about look, touch and feel” that “brings the audience into the experience with you.”
Too much talk about the future, Zandan says, diminishes a speaker’s credibility with an audience. “People aren’t going to believe you as much.”
Great speakers have a knack or have learned how to draw an audience close to them when they begin and keep them absorbed during their talk. They rely heavily on real-time crowd feedback. Zandan’s techniques augment the native feel of speakers with hard data on audience reactions. That can be of great value to a speaker who has something important to say but isn’t as attuned to audience cues.
The takeaways Zandan extrapolates from his data and analytics are not surprising nor that much different from the advice of experienced speech coaches. The data reinforces the need to make speech tangible, accessible and understandable. Make a topic relatable and show the audience a path to your desired destination.
While data can improve the word choices speakers make, you can’t divorce speech from the speaker and how she or he looks, projects and sounds. Media training is a great example of showing speakers how they look, project and sound while giving an interview that is captured on video. Ticks, awkward gestures and contorted expressions suddenly stand out, almost drowning out the words spoken, when you see yourself on screen. That’s natural because what we see often sticks around in our brain longer than what we hear. And if what we see is discordant or uncoordinated with what we hear, we tend to dismiss what we hear.
Zandan admits there is more to great speech than data analysis. He underscores the importance of authenticity. “There is obviously authenticity to the way you deliver the message, and there are words that are considered authentic.…The data can lead you down a path of replication. We don’t want to do that because so much of what you communicate is your personality.”
Listening to Elon Musk fawn over Tesla’s doors is perfectly authentic. It makes us want to open and close them, too.
Gary Conkling is president and co-founder of CFM Strategic Communications, and he leads the firm's PR practice, specializing in crisis communications. He is a former journalist, who later worked on Capitol Hill and represented a major Oregon company. But most importantly, he’s a die-hard Ducks fan. You can reach Gary at firstname.lastname@example.org and you can follow him on Twitter at@GaryConkling.