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Why leaders still need voice and body language

25 Jan 2018 By Harriet Heneghan

It’s not enough to feel emotion – you have to show it to be a successful communicator, says Harriet Heneghan

Leaders need to use their voice and body language, as much in 2018 as ever before, not least because they are critical in inspiring others and gaining trust – two essential leadership skills.

This is a complex arena to understand but, with a little effort, there are some quick wins to be gained.

Some say that with the rise of social media, there are so many more ways to communicate today and that, as a result, these skills are becoming less important. But this is not the case.

There is growing sentiment that our reliance on electronic communication has gone too far, with regular calls in the media for a ‘digital detox’, but leaders have always and will always need to think about how they come across in person. Humans have always had a strong desire to communicate, not only through words but also through voice and body language. This is perhaps evidenced by the prolific use of emojis in today’s digital messages. 

Despite mastery of voice and body language being essential skills, some leaders find this easier than others. Even the most gifted communicators will find they don’t always achieve their peak performance when they are under pressure and the stakes are high.

There are, however, a number of relatively simple techniques leaders can practise to maximise their influence and impact.

To inspire, leaders need to use emotion. The use of emotion is key in influencing others, and voice and body language are very powerful ways to communicate emotion. Leaders should ensure that the sound of their voice and their appearance is congruent with what they are saying – if it is an enthusiastic message, it should sound enthusiastic and look enthusiastic.

An example of how not to do this is ex-prime minister Gordon Brown. Brown could be talking about an exciting new plan, but any enthusiasm would be lost in a somewhat dour look and flat intonation. Throw in a fake smile that makes people cringe and the leader and message are not only dull and uninspiring, they can look false.

To gain trust, leaders need to show that they can listen and that they care – former US president Barack Obama is very skilled at this. Non-verbally, he asks his audience: ‘Did you get that? Can I go on?’ How does he achieve this? First, he has the right mindset. He believes, or has the appearance of believing, in his message and therefore he comes across as genuine. Second, he achieves this physically. He stops talking, he pauses and he looks at the people he is speaking to. They see he cares if they have time to process his ideas, and that he is interested in their non-verbal response – nods, etc. This is a simple eye contact technique that, when skilfully used, increases trust in your message and therefore you.

Both of the above techniques can be easily practised by videoing yourself with a smartphone or, better still, asking people to give you feedback. A good rule is to remember that your voice and body language will mirror your mindset. If you feel confident using these techniques, then you will come across confidently.  

It is important to keep in mind that leaders need to be able to achieve impact and influence in a pressured environment when the stakes are high. Even if you believe you are a highly skilled communicator at the best of times, make sure you also achieve peak performance when the heat is on. That is as true in 2018 as it ever was.  

Harriet Heneghan is the EMEA director and an executive coach at Black Isle Group

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