Ever see an executive fumble an answer to a question from a reporter, or maybe even an employee? Of course, it happens all the time. There are times when we simply may not want to answer a question, but the key reason for flubs is that we are unprepared to speak. One way to become more articulate is to prepare yourself in advance.
Essayist Arthur Krystal addresses inarticulateness and the power of writing to resolve it in a recent article for the New York Times Book Review. Krystal paraphrases an email interview with Harvard psychologist Steve Pinker and states, “thinking precedes writing and that the reason we sound smarter when writing is because we deliberately set out to be clear and precise.” Novelist Vladimir Nabokov, whom Krystal also cites, understood this and it’s why he used index cards during a televised interview recorded in the late Fifties about his book Lolita. Nabokov may have looked rumpled, but he spoke eloquently.
It’s a good lesson for every executive — be prepared before you speak. Such preparation is not reserved solely for major presentations; it also applies to impromptu messages that executives need to deliver constantly. I liken these leadership messages to elevator pitches in reference to their brevity (a short ride) but also their importance (selling a big idea).
Leadership is about persuasion — convincing others of the soundness of your point of view. Writing out your thoughts is good practice and I believe that doing so is not onerous because managers regularly script their thoughts in email. Here are three tips for preparing your leadership pitches to be more persuasive.
1. Think it through. Consider the key issues facing your team; it is a good idea to have a short leadership pitch for each one. What the issues are is up to you, but they should reflect the big things that are happening — initiatives, issues, and challenges. Your pitch needs to reflect your reasoning and your point of view as well as why people should support you and your idea.
2. Script it out. Write out your thoughts. This gives you the opportunity to focus on the issue and think about what you want to say. It’s always good to provide a short explanation and then segue into your argument. Leverage the business case for your idea and talk about the impact your idea will have on others and the on the organization.
3. Rehearse it. Yes, it is important to practice your messages out loud. Many executives I have coached practice on their drives to and from work. You might also use a voice recorder (often integrated into your mobile phone) to get used to delivering the message out loud. The recording is for you; no one else need listen. What’s more, as my colleague and consultant Kathy Macdonald advises, you can time yourself. That’s good practice for keeping messages short and tight. (Note: do not try to drive and record at the same time.)
Many of you reading this may be saying, “Great idea, but who’s got time for this?” My response is make time. One executive who helped me learn the importance of leadership messaging is Paul Saginaw, co-founder of Zingerman’s — once judged by Inc. magazine as “one of America’s coolest companies.” As Ann Arbor-based Zingerman’s grew from a deli to a collection of food-related businesses, the number of employees grew exponentially. Paul found himself stretched thin as all entrepreneurs do, but he disciplined himself to think ahead to how he could continue providing insight and direction to key employees. He prepared messages in advance so that if he encountered a person he needed to speak to he would have something cogent and coherent to say, not in greeting but in the form of tangible advice.
Preparing your key messages in advance has another advantage. It will help scripting more formal presentations easier because you will have a collection of key thoughts prepared. This will help you become a more fluent and polished presenter. And when you are asked questions, you will have the verbal dexterity to deliver a reply that shows command of the issues as well as an ease that radiates confidence.
First posted on HBR.org 9/30/2009