ITL #193 Connecting with your audience: striking the right chord in leadership communications

4 years, 2 months ago


In this age of volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity, organizations need leaders able to build trust through empathy and engagement. By Shravani Dang.

To borrow an acronym from military jargon, we live and work today in a world which is VUCA; one filled with volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity. In this VUCA world state, coupled with both globalization and localization, there is a new range of problems.

Leadership communication is not just important now in and of itself, but striking the right chord in Leadership communications is imperative. Not doing so can lead to misunderstanding and misinterpretation, when the objective is to do the opposite.

I have worked with leaders in for profit and not for profit organizations and across multiple industries. It is clear to me that creating and ensuring the right connection between audience and message has most to do with clarity of thought, body language, confidence, tone of voice, empathy and the ability to build trust.

To strike the right chord, the leaderspeak, as it were, must be credible, authentic and inspiring. Accent, grammar, looks, dress…are indeed important. But they take a back seat in these situations.

Good and great leaders view their communications as a deeply connected, valuable tool. Their manner embodies dedication and accountability, thereby inspiring participation and innovation.

Then there’s the factor of stickability’. What are the messages that actually stick in people’s minds? It’s certainly not a list of facts, figures and unnecessary details, which are dry and too much to absorb and retain.

Instead, a few well-chosen data points and take-outs work best to illustrate and drive home the message. These data points or illustrators need to be woven into the communications and repeated to ensure their stickability. The art and science of this is to skillfully blend facts, findings and specific examples and observations into an even, well-structured communication.

Smooth talkers

Are glib and smooth talkers the ones who can sway the audience? That’s not always the case. Sometimes, a glib and smooth talker will be able to swing it one time…but maybe not. In the long run, he or she will lack the credibility and trust, and falter at the ratings.

Today’s audience, both internal or external, are skeptical and wary. No one can take trust for granted. Leaders in every sphere – political, business or even the arts and charity are working to manage, build and maintain the trust of their multiple stakeholders. This is as much a tough call at a manager’s level as it is in the boardroom.

Every leader has to make a great and personal effort to build and maintain trust and continue to be engaged with his or her publics. Certainly not an easy task. Nor one for the fainthearted!

Much is said about tone; talking to and not talking down to. The best way to strike the right chord is to make the entire effort conversational. The old way, “CEO will speak at…”, has changed to “Conversations with…”.

The conversation style has many advantages. First among them is that it makes for a good listener. The best communicators are the best listeners too.

Non-verbal cues

Listeners understand non-verbal cues and body language. They are able to sense and grasp changing moods and dynamics, and seek to know and understand issues and concerns.

Listening also enables the capturing of new ideas. At CSC India, the President regularly asked the junior most employee for ideas and issues and looped them back into the system as inputs to be addressed.

Good listeners have a high ability to modify their messages if they pick up different signals and successfully manage to improvise with their adapted message. Listening, asking specific and focused questions, discourages boring monologues and embarrassing arguments, while encouraging a proper two-way conversation to understand the many different points of view.

Calm in a storm

Striking the right chord at times of crisis, chaos and challenging issues is the difficult one. The key is not to panic. Maintain vocal pitch, don’t let your voice become high or shaky. Be calm, collected and most important, sound confident.

Confidence should reflect in the voice, tone and body language as well as in answering questions as openly and authentically as possible. In business, when there are issues that one cannot share with everybody, or when the full picture is not available, then it is better to level with the audience. People understand this very well and it builds trust.

Political leaders have swayed millions during war, Churchill for example. Their powerful and emotional speeches have moved and motivated thousands. Often leaders shy away from showing emotion. But the fact is, emotion and empathy do move people. They do bring out the best in others and moves them into action.

Agreed meanings

One interesting technique I’ve advocated successfully is to not just get everyone on the same page, but also to agree on what the important words mean. This translates to all team players using the same vocabulary to mean and articulate the same thing.

People switch off when confronted by an ego trip, when leaders portray themselves as the most intelligent. The ones who know it all! Make other people the leading actors. Watch them shine while working towards a shared purpose and common goal.

In terms of content, enable deeper understanding by explaining reasoning and intent. This connects you to the audience. And it helps them plan for the next steps.

Finally, the old adage holds true. Practice makes perfect. Practice, practice and practice…and don’t wing it. Shallowness shows through. In contrast, everyone respects and connects with a person who has prepared, and prepared well.

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The Author

Shravani Dang

Shravani Dang, Vice President and Global Group Head, Corporate Communications, Avantha Group. Avantha is one of India's leading business conglomerates, with operations in 90 countries and more than 25,000 employees.

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