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Leaders. Make it snappy. Then let your words fly

Speechwriting is not for the birds but they can teach us a trick or two

The Eurasian Hoopoe Animalia
Listening to the songs of birds from the region, such as the hoopoe, can be surprisingly beneficial for leaders seeking to engage an audience

So. You’re a leader. What next? Lead. Easy. Right?

Except, of course, that isn’t easy at all and one of the most difficult things to do as a leader is to persuade people that they want to follow you without them even thinking they might have another option. This is your guide on how to use words to do exactly that.

In last month’s column I took you through the rule of three, which is probably the trick of rhetoric that gives you the biggest bang for not even a buck.

This time around, we’re going to start getting to the heart of things … or, more accurately, the brain stem. Because we humans are highly evolved animals and, although we like to think otherwise, our brains still operate with some of the same mechanisms that kept us alive 10,000 years ago, when getting eaten by something big was still a serious worry.

What am I talking about? Well, how did the opening line of this column make you feel? Anxious? On edge? Under pressure?

And how did the second, third and fourth make you feel? Did you maybe relax a bit, breathe a little more deeply and start to feel that things were ok after all?

If so, that was your brainstem kicking in – and there was nothing you could do about it: we are hard-wired to react like this. It’s our nature. It is, in truth, just nature.

You can hear it wherever you are on the Gulf peninsula – just listen to the birds. When they are relaxed, when they are seeking a mate, you hear one type of song and it is often long, lyrical and complex.

But. If they see a cat. It’s different. The call is rapid, harsh and simple. It serves one purpose: to warn of danger with maximum efficiency before, or as, the bird escapes.

Just listen to the difference in the songs and alarm calls of birds native to the region like the white-eared bulbul, the hoopoe, or the Arabian wheatear.

How does this help you as a leader? It helps you in three ways.

First, you can grab attention and wake people up by deliberately speaking in clipped phrases – subconsciously telling them that there may be danger nearby.

Second, you can settle people down simply by writing in longer phrases that wind around and back again – subconsciously telling them that they are safe.

Third, you can use both techniques alternatively to take people on a roller-coaster ride of tension and release that, if done right, can leave them feeling both energised and content.

We are hard-wired to react like this. It’s our nature. It is, in truth, just nature.

You can easily see these techniques in action in a speech that just won a Cicero award (an Oscar for speechwriting) delivered by Sultan Al Jaber, CEO of Adnoc and president of Cop28, at CERAWeek – the annual gathering of the oil and gas industry in Houston.

Early in the speech, Al Jaber raises the tension by telling the audience that he had doubts about the wisdom of speaking to them at all, but then immediately releases it with a flowing passage: “I know that some of you have felt excluded from the climate dialogue in the past — while others may have felt this isn’t their problem to fix. I also know that the energy leaders in this room have the knowledge, experience, expertise and the resources needed to address the dual challenge of driving sustainable progress while holding back emissions. And, I truly believe …”

Later in the speech, Al Jaber wants to wake the audience up again, so he hits them with this line: “These are the facts. They are based on the science. And here is the math.”

A few paragraphs later, he makes sure his listeners are still on edge and attentive, so clips out: “We need action. We need to act together. And we need to act now.”

Another Cicero winner (you can read both here) was a speech by Abdulrahman Shamsaddin, CEO of Sabic Agri Nutrients. After a gentle, thoughtful, almost philosophical opening, he gets to the point with: “The answer, I’m convinced, is innovation.” Bang. He’s got them. His audience is alert and they want to know: what innovation?

One thing though. Be careful.

If you overuse clipped phrases you will lose your impact and instead of sounding like a leader, you will sound panicked. 

Similarly, if you overuse elongated phrases, you will simply put people to sleep.

But. If you do. Wake them up.

Lech Mintowt-Czyz is a multi-award winning speechwriter who helps leaders with all their thought leadership needs through his company Speech Success:

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