The Power of Effective Verbal Communications: The Art of Eloquent Discourse and Personal Brand Implications
I think most would agree that effective verbal communication is a fundamental skill needed in order to succeed in both business and life. Whether it’s in the board room or a family outing, how you articulate your thoughts ultimately defines who you are in the eyes of others. These instant perceptions could very well dictate your opportunities for career advancement or even opportunities to build personal friendships.
Let me present you with a hypothetical scenario. Frank (nice innocuous name) has just been tasked to research a potential solution to a lingering business issue within his organization. He did the appropriate legwork and put together a solid business case to justify a project idea that will once and for all address that pesky problem. He prepares a sharp Power Point presentation to make his pitch enticing. Afterwards he’s greeted with a lukewarm response from the audience but is still confident that the supporting data is too compelling for his idea to be shot down. Several weeks go by. Frank’s then told by a colleague, in passing, that the project idea was canned. How could that be, he thinks to himself? The solution was sublime. Oh well, I guess there was just no budget for it. I have no control over that. Life goes on. Several months go by when Frank learns that the project finally gets the green light. He feels a deep sense of vindication that the organization finally came to its senses.
But what changed during that period? Why was the project approved now? Frank later learns that the idea was pitched again to the same audience. Only this time, it was a different person presenting the solution. The presentation contained the same facts and figures but this time yielding a vastly different outcome. Have you ever seen this happen before? Obviously the delayed outcome could be attributed to a bevy of variables such as corporate red tape, budget constraints, resource / timing issues, etc. But, let’s just say that there were none of those obstacles. The skies were blue and the stars were in perfect alignment to support this golden project. What if Frank found out that the original audience didn’t jump on board with his pitch as it just didn’t compel them enough? Not only was the pitch unconvincing but Frank personally may have played a part in not selling the idea properly. I believe Frank’s earlier sense of vindication would quickly fade.
The essence of this article deals with the power of effective verbal communication by examining two core concepts: The art of eloquent discourse and the power of an individual’s personal brand. These concepts will be explored through the analysis of seasoned communicators such as President Barrack Obama, New York Times best selling author Malcolm Gladwell and a handful of others. This perspective will be coupled with musings on the implications of personal branding by exploring relevant scenarios.
Let’s return back to the hypothetical situation mentioned above for a moment. I felt it was important to fill in a few more pertinent facts about Frank’s failed presentation. First, Frank had arrived 30 minutes late which according to several of his colleagues is a common occurrence. This left Frank with an open time slot of only 15 minutes as the audience had a mandatory team lunch immediately after the session. The condensed timeframe forced Frank to deliver the presentation much quicker then he’d of liked. This caused him to mangle his already weak presentation style. Secondly, Frank had arrived wearing visibly worn khaki’s and an old polo shirt to a meeting which is commonly known to require business formal attire. As Frank walked in 30 minutes late, in his less than appropriate clothing, the audience groaned with open irritation. Finally, one of the audience members confessed afterwards that she actually liked the idea he presented but assumed it wasn’t well thought out given his track record. Do you feel less pity for Frank now?
What can we learn from Frank? It seems Frank fell short with a series of obvious mistakes. Such as being late, dressing unprofessionally and his obvious lack of presentation skills which was only exacerbated by the negative professional image he’d cultivated for himself over the years. Is there any one of these elements that are worse then the other or is it the collection of these elements that created the ultimate impression? I think most will immediately recognize the latter as being the correct answer. Let’s now focus in on one aspect of Frank’s problems by looking into the challenges associated with verbal communications in general.
Verbal communication is practiced by all of us in our daily lives. Whether it’s interacting with a loved one or asking a waiter about today’s special, verbal communication is a skill utilized with regularity. However, there is a significant difference between communicating effectively versus just communicating. Imagine the following scenario. Treasury secretary, Hank Paulson, is being interviewed by journalist Charlie Rose about the economic bailout plan he promoted to help stabilize a struggling economy. Ignore the policy ideas. Even ignore the words being used. Focus only on his voice, tone and nonverbal cues. Below is a video clip of this scenario. It’s rather short and cuts off abruptly after two minutes but just the same conveys the purpose of the exercise. What’s your first reaction to Paulson? Before you view the video, I ask that you clear your mind of Paulson’s background, recent events, etc. Imagine you’re hearing and seeing him speak for the first time. I’ll explain the reason for this requirement later.
Here’s the clip:
Hold that thought. Now, let’s see how your perception aligns with mine. Not to say my view carries any more weight then yours but here’s my take on the video: Paulson’s body language in the first twenty-five seconds speak volumes. His face immediately offers a nervous smile which quickly turns to an equally uncomfortable smirk, which is then followed by raised eye brows, rapid eye blinking then finally an open arm posture as if to say, before he even opens his mouth, “what the heck, it’s not all my fault”. Couple these gestures with a rather raspy voice, a persistent stutter (not so much in this clip) and the trademark vacant look he periodically flashes and you have the making of another failed presentation, just like poor Frank. Did you find an overlap from what you thought to what was written?
Now, of course we have to put this scenario into context. Paulson is spearheading a fragmented economy of unprecedented scale and complexity. His challenges far outweigh those being faced by Frank. But as the audience, do you feel confident in Paulson “the person” after listening to him speak? His demeanor doesn’t exactly exude confidence, does it? His delivery, although understandable, simply does not flow seamlessly. At the end of an idea exchange, whether it’s an interview like this or just collaborating in a typical work setting, the audience needs to connect with the communicator. The audience needs to not only understand what’s being said, but also get the sense that what’s being said is genuine. Poor work attire or frantic body posture will simply not score anyone those subconscious “genuine” points. If the message delivery is confident, articulate and presented at the right tone then the receiver will be more inclined to reciprocate by actively listening. Once that happens, the audience member becomes engaged and psychologically committed to seeing your vantage point, perhaps even siding with your views without even seeing all the supporting evidence to your claim. These elements in effect describe the very essence of eloquent discourse. It’s a skill which takes many years of methodical practice. It is also a skill which comes more naturally to some but can never the less be refined over time. It seems to me that Paulson may have a little more in common with Frank then previously thought, right?
Prior to watching the Paulson video I had asked you to essentially pretend you are seeing and hearing him for the first time. Such a request was to cleanse your preconceived notions about Paulson so you can focus in on those idiosyncrasies which I drew your attention to. I understand that this is a rather futile effort as the moment you heard his name or watched the video, you more then likely formed some sort of instant opinion if you’ve heard of him. Which I suspect most of you have. This visceral reaction brings me to my next point on effective verbal communication which is the concept of personal branding and its associated implications.
Prior to Hank Paulson entering the world of government policy, he was a long time member of the Wall Street elite, as the former CEO of Goldman Sachs. Many political pundits, prior to his appointment, felt he was be an ideal candidate for the role given his extensive financial experience and strong international relations in emerging market such as China. Little resistance was encountered so his transition into office was a relatively tame event. In the early months of his term, rarely did you hear his name. But as the economy began to demonstrate its true colors, his leadership was called to the forefront. It was at that time that you couldn’t tune into a news channel without hearing his voice or reading his name be referenced. He instantly became relevant in the eyes of the nation. His words and tone spouted urgency as he began to promote what’s now commonly referred to as a “bailout package”. Early on, his direction carried immense power as there was simply little clarity around the tumultuous situation. His guidance was intensely sought after. As the rushed bailout package was pushed through congress with what we now know to have had little accountability built into its framework, questions began to arise by the public. Questions then escalated into criticism which ultimately evolved into anger. Public sentiment began to shift against Paulson. No longer was he viewed by the majority as someone acting in the interest of the taxpayer. He was perceived to be just another Wall Street elitist acting in the interest of same financial institutions he made his fortunes with in the past. There will undoubtedly be conflicting views as to just how successful his tenure will one day be viewed. What’s certain is that his time there will always be shrouded with some degree of negativity.
You might be asking yourself, what does this have to do with effective verbal communications? Well, the reality of effective verbal communications is that your personal brand will always be considered before, during and after a verbal transaction. Remember Frank? His personal brand of being a less then stellar performer directly impacted the outcome of his project idea. Now, let’s just say that Frank takes an intense verbal communications boot camp and practices this new craft to a point where he does master the “art of eloquence discourse”. The next time he speaks, his ideas will be more clearly presented and heard but his personal brand may very well sabotage his efforts once again. What about Mr. Paulson? Well, his brand has changed dramatically to be sure. Once seen as a brilliant Wall Street executive, he’s now seen as a very human and fallible treasury secretary. How do you think that may impact his verbal interactions? Well, I ask you to watch the Charlie Rose interview one more time. This time take all aspects of the interaction into consideration. Keep his personal brand and verbal communication style at the forefront of your thoughts. How do you feel about the video now? A strong personal brand is the foundation in which effective verbal communications is built upon. At times a strong personal brand can very well mask deficiencies in verbal communications. The reality is that those very same deficiencies play directly into the creation of your brand, but…a weak brand combined with weak verbal communications will do nothing more then stifle your career progression.
The brand you create for yourself especially in the workplace is determined by each and every interaction you have throughout the course of the day. These interactions do not just apply to important meetings or when you’re chatting with your boss at the water cooler. They include everything you could possibly think of. How you say hi to people in the morning, how you dress yourself, how you present an idea, how you stand up for a colleagues actions, how you react to an aggressive e-mail and how polite you are to a secretary. The list is comprised of thousands of possibilities, all of which can be potentially observed by someone else. The aggregate collection of these observations, ultimately form a personal brand for someone whether they want one or not. Frank was constantly late to meetings which demonstrated to some employees that he was just an inconsiderate person. To others, he was perceived as having poor organizational skills. Regardless of the perspective chosen, his brand was dealt a negative blow and he has suffered the consequence.
Former John Hancock Financial CEO, David D’Alessandro, recently released a book called “Career Warfare” which essentially focuses on the implications of personal branding as an individual rises through the ranks of an organization. It’s a tremendous book, chalk-full of invaluable perspectives on the power of personal branding. I wholeheartedly recommend this book to anyone interested in advancing their career. It elaborates rather extensively on the paragraph above and really ties together the significance of brand implications over a career life-cycle. If you found this section interesting, the book will definitely hold your interest.
Ok, thus far we’ve really delved into some examples of poor verbal communications and negative personal branding. Let’s take a look at the other side of the coin by taking a look at two positive video clips. The first is of President, Barrack Obama, at the 2004 democratic national convention where he delivered a memorable keynote address. The second is of another author by the name of Malcolm Gladwell who is delivering a presentation on a rather unusual topic. Spaghetti sauce! Now, give them both a watch. They are rather lengthy but I assure you both are worth the time.
Obama carries with him a very different presence then Paulson, doesn’t he? So what makes this speech so special? At the time, Obama was practically an unknown figure that many were hearing speak for the very first time. It was because of that fact that there were little personal branding constraints to dictate how he would be perceived early into his delivery. This prompted the focus to be on what people instantly saw and heard. At first glance, you see a young African American brimming with confidence who appears to feel at ease in front of the podium and the boisterous crowd. Clear and concise articulation becomes immediately apparent in his delivery. His confidence never seems to slip into arrogant pontification. His seemingly genuine personality shined through causing millions to be instantly drawn into his dialogue within the first three minutes. Couple all that with his powerful patriotic rhetoric and the outcome is one of the most powerful speeches in the past decade.
Let’s immediately jump into our next video by Malcolm Gladwell:
Let’s first examine the presenter. At this point in time, Malcolm Gladwell was a successful writer for the “New Yorker” magazine, a New York Times best selling author and had just released his second book, which subsequently became a best seller as well. Gladwell was fairly well known, especially in the circle of attendees at this annual TED conference where the video was filmed. I too personally knew a great deal about Gladwell as I had already finished his third book before watching the video. Before he spoke, my expectations were relatively high. His books always delivered rich content with elaborate stories to prove his logic. I eagerly waited to hear more of the same. Just before playing the video, I immediately asked myself the following: Would his gifted written communication talents translate into verbal excellence or would it become apparent that he should just stick to writing? The former held true in my opinion. His appearance immediately struck me as interesting; tall, thin with a dramatically puffy head of hair. His delivery was similar to his approach to writing. Articulate, well organized, thorough, humorous and interesting. By coupling those elements with his strong personal brand, even an unusual topic yielded a verbal interaction which kept me both interested and entertained.
Outside of learning about how Howard Moskowitz revolutionized the food industry, my hope was to convey the significance of effective verbal communications, specifically when it comes to personal branding and eloquent discourse. As we learned earlier with Frank’s predicament, a weak personal brand can have a direct impact on career advancement. Paulson demonstrated communication skills which were far from eloquent which play into the cultivation of his personal brand. Paulson’s fluctuating brand which is currently in the process of transitioning from “Rock Star” to “Questionable Rock Star” may very well play into his self confidence moving forward as future audience members will from now on carry with them a much stronger lens of scrutiny. In contrast to Frank and Paulson’s circumstance, both Obama and Gladwell delivered vastly unique presentations. But the common denominator amongst them both was they each demonstrated the very essence of what it means to be eloquent. Each brought forth strong personal brands which were only solidified by delivering presentations of inspiration and creativity.
Although these examples primarily highlighted celebrity figures, the very same elements of effective verbal communication hold true in all of our professional lives. The perspective presented was meant to provide tangible insight which would ultimately foster abstract thinking in an individual’s quest for personal career advancement. Very few of us will reach the stage of a Paulson, Obama or even Gladwell for that matter. However, many of us do or will fall into the working category of a “Frank” – a category which embodies the very essence of what it means to be a “business professional”. It’s a category where each employee maintains a position of employment for the simple fact that they possess some sort of unique value to their organization. Within that organization, the rank and file will always be gauged and labeled accordingly to reflect someone as a high performer or low performer. The question you should be asking yourself right now is: Which bucket do I fall into? If your answer is “high performer”, then keep doing what you’re doing! If the honest answer is “low performer”, it’s really not the end of the world. By understanding the implications of your personal brand, adjusting actions in order to enhance that brand and ultimately using that renewed image to engage in articulate discourse may very well get you to the high performer you always knew you could be. You hear that Frank? Make it happen!