Communication Lessons Business Leaders can Learn From History


Business leaders need to be strong communicators.  Today’s consumer and media expect the CEO, President, or Chairman of the Board of a company to be the company’s spokesperson.  Businesses have several audiences – the public, employees, the media, and often investors.  Being able to communicate to these audiences can be a challenge.  Yet there are some lessons from key leaders that today’s business leaders can draw upon.

  1. Be yourself. Often business leaders seem tense or rehearsed when speaking to the media or attempting to reassure investors and consumers.  Employees often say CEOs appear stiff and not natural when speaking to them.  That is because they often feel that they have to act a certain role and not just be themselves.  They should copy Margaret Thatcher who believed that being yourself was essential to good communications.  In the 1970s and 1980s, British politicians spent more time in thinking about how to speak to their political base rather than the nation as a whole.  Thatcher was the exception.  She said she knew who she was and would not change who she was or what she was saying, what was good to say in London was the same to say in Birmingham, she claimed. We all know the how well that worked for the Iron Lady.
  2. Use anecdotes. One of the largest complaints that many have about business leaders as communicators is that they speak in a language that many can’t relate too.  Consumers complain that it’s all about stock prices and bottom lines.  Those are important but so is talking in terms that people can relate to – be it a consumer or employee.  The mastery of Abraham Lincoln was in the use of anecdotes that his audiences could relate to and that reinforced his central points.
  3. Brevity can command more attention. A major mistake with many corporate leaders is they often go on with their presentations and interviews when less would be better.  Calvin Coolidge isn’t noted for being a great communicator.  His claim to fame is for being ‘Silent Cal’, the president who barely spoke and when he did was brief in his remarks.  Yet Coolidge commanded widespread attention when he did speak and got a greater response than Presidents who in the past had spoken for hours on end often losing their audiences.  Likewise, Lincoln, one of the greatest communicators realized brevity often conveyed meaning far greater than a 2 hour speech.  His masterful Gettysburg Address was less than 3 minutes but still echoes.
  4. Have no more than 3 major points that you are trying to communicate. Very often business leaders are attempting to get numerous points across in a speech or interview and the result is the audience can’t remember what the key points of the message were.  Franklin Roosevelt, John Kennedy, and Ronald Reagan are all considered some of the greatest communicators to serve as President in the twentieth century and believed you should never have more than three major points to convey in a speech or interview.  All three practiced that on the campaign trail and then in the Oval Office.  Business leaders should focus on no more than three major points in presentations.
  5. Be able to poke fun at yourself. Business leaders often find themselves criticized to their face during media interviews or have an embarrassing prediction brought up.  Too often the business leader becomes defensive or angry.  That is the wrong impression to give.  Be able to laugh at yourself and poke fun at yourself.  People respond to that human quality.  It was part of the success for such diverse personalities as Lincoln, Eisenhower, Reagan, and Lincoln.  The absence of it was why a Carter and Nixon failed in communications.

Successful communications is essential in business.  Taking a page out of successful communications strategies of leaders should be a no-brainer for corporate communications.


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