In the Oscar-winning film, “The King’s Speech,” the speech coach, played by Geoffrey Rush, prods with the question, “Why should I waste my time listening to you?” In a breakthrough moment, Colin Firth as King George VI exclaims, “Because I have a voice!” To which the coach knowingly replies, “Why, yes you do.”
King George VI must speak for his nation in a time of war, but he also speaks for us in the audience when he taps into his presence as a leader and summons up what I call “rhetorical courage.”
You don’t have to be a king or struggle with a speech impediment to identify with the terrifying fear of being caught searching for words. But as I have found in my 20 years of working with managers and leaders, underneath that frustrating anxiety lies a powerful and authentic voice waiting to emerge. What is the key to projecting your presence and leading with rhetorical courage? The answer lies in a simple but profound idea: Speaking your mind, from the heart, even when your voice shakes.
I have found that a leader’s presence with an audience is a function of his or her presence of mind. In other words, clarity, credibility and conviction with an audience are contingent on being clear, authentic and committed within yourself. As speakers, we feel and come across at our best when we are present, focused and centered in our purpose.
In a sense, leaders must be the “truth-teller-in chief,” willing to say what must be said, expressing ideas that are grounded in their values yet flexible enough to meet an audience’s needs at least halfway. Speaking your mind means treating your audience as individuals with minds of their own, as thinking decision-makers able to accept or reject your ideas using their own powers of reason.
To speak your mind with rhetorical courage means to dare saying something truly interesting rather than just touting the party line. And especially in business, these ideas need to be more than thought-provoking; they need to align behavior, compel action and get things done.
Robert Frost once wrote, “No tears in the writer, no tears in the reader.” The same is true when a leader speaks. Logic and reason, though important in swaying an audience, are not enough. Those you lead want not only to understand your message but to feel your presence on an emotional level. Inauthentic emotion is easily seen through, so for others to connect emotionally with their message, leaders must connect emotionally within themselves.
Personal story telling can be a powerful way to achieve this. Because we can speak with absolute authority, a message grounded in experience can lend us courage; as listeners, we feel a shift and open ourselves to a story’s wisdom.
There’s no getting around the fact that most of us feel nervous when speaking about something that really matters, especially if it is in public. Some of us may shun the spotlight because we fear the sound of our own voice, others because we are subdued by a near-constant running critical commentary in our heads. The good news is that nervousness and self-doubt can be moderated and even overcome by connecting with your center, identifying what you stand for, and speaking aloud even when your voice shakes.
I have found, however, that lessons in mindfulness, yoga and acting can be surprisingly helpful as well. Mindfulness can promote detachment from inner gremlins. Yoga can connect the mind and body for greater awareness and inner strength, while heightening your confidence. The skills of the actor can help you break out of personal communication habits that feel safe but constrain your repertoire.
Ultimately, tapping into your own presence can be a powerful step toward leading with rhetorical courage. Many programs may help you identify your values, but building the courage and skills to speak them persuasively goes several steps further. Not only does finding and using your own voice feel liberating; it also inspires others to act and accomplish the things you need their help to do.
Powell is assistant professor of business administration at the University of Virginia Darden School of Business.