“Half the world is composed of people who have something to say and can’t, and the other half who have nothing to say and keep saying it.” —Robert Frost, early 20th century American poet

We can’t inspire and energize people with memos, mission statements, data and analysis, charts, goals and objectives, measurements, systems, or processes. These are important factors in improving performance. But that’s management, not leadership. People are inspired and aroused by exciting mental pictures of a preferred future, principles or values that ring true, and being part of a higher cause or purpose that helps them feel they’re making a difference.

Highly interconnected with and dependent upon a leader’s ability to provide Focus and Context, is his or her communication skills — especially verbal skills. When I was 18 and starting my Culligan career, I took a Dale Carnegie sales course. I followed that with their public speaking course. Both had a major impact on my leadership performance. I came to realize that learning the basic persuasion skills of clarifying and simplifying what we’re trying to say, tuning into our audience, and grabbing them by the handles of their emotions, is critical to effective leadership.

When I look at the effective leaders I’ve met that inspire, energize, and arouse people to improved performance, they are all effective speakers. Some are charismatic and dynamic orators. Others are soft-spoken and almost shy. But without exception, they can stand in front of a large or small group and express themselves with a clarity, conviction and credibility that stir their audience or group members’ feelings and emotions.

Effective leaders continually improve their verbal skills. Here’s some of the supporting research and observations showing that strong verbal communication skills are critical to effective leadership:

  • “Recent research at the University of Southern California suggests that students with high verbal scores may be better at coping with ambiguity and uncertainty. . . They tend to be open-minded, analytic, non-judgmental, and better at integrative thinking — using scattered bits of information to develop a big picture. . . (Harvard business school professor) Leonard Schlesinger: ‘We’re making a gentle shift away from training and development of general managers where leadership is implicit, to where leadership is explicit and general management is implicit’.” — Brian O’Reilly, “Reengineering the MBA,” Fortune
  • “It is not enough for leaders to have dreams of the future. They must be able to communicate these in ways that encourage us to sign on for the duration and to work hard toward the objective… Of executives surveyed, 91 percent said that (in the coming years) it will be very important that CEOs be inspiring. This quality is rated as more important than ‘analytical,’ ‘organized,’ and ‘tough’.” — James Kouzes and Barry Posner, Credibility
  • Studies commissioned by Robert Half International “prove conclusively that there is a strong link between success and the ability to communicate.”
  • “Without exception, visionary leaders are able to communicate their visions to others so they are thoroughly understood and accepted.” — Burt Nanus, Visionary Leadership
  • “The ability to express an idea is well nigh as important as the idea itself.” — Bernard Baruch, American financier and government advisor
  • “Charles De Gaulle did not call in ‘writers.’ The very idea is grotesque. The leader who allows others to speak for him is abdicating.” — May Sarton, American poet and writer

There are many ways we can continually improve our verbal communication skills. These might include joining Toastmasters, taking a public speaking course, getting personal video-based speaking feedback, personal coaching, participating in interpersonal skill training, getting training on facilitating meetings, taking a sales course, giving speeches at service clubs, and the like. Strong leaders, on the grow, do whatever they can to continually improve their ability to speak to groups and persuade others to follow their lead.