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What inaugurations can teach you about your communication

Your all-company meeting or monthly staff updates don’t carry the weight of a presidential address, but neither should you consider them trivial or mundane. Three takeaways from recent inaugural addresses can empower you to take advantage of every opportunity for communicating at a higher level.

Words matter

Duh, right? Yet, notice how much time you focus on calculating financial statements, developing action plans and creating graphics for PowerPoint (or overseeing someone who does) compared with consciously choosing the words you’ll use to share vital information.

Consciously curating the words that convey your content is worth the effort. Words paint a landscape -- a mental image that people either want to be a part of or avoid. Words obviously inspire action and change. Just listen to any speech (real or movie footage) by Martin Luther King Jr., Mahatma Gandhi, John F. Kennedy or Winston Churchill.

No matter what your topic, your words can be aspirational, bringing out the best in the people you lead. And, as we experienced in the US recently, your words can also fuel people’s fears, anger and resentment. Better to be flat and boring!

Recent inauguration speeches can offer you helpful insight into the words you choose for your next presentation. As you consider three excerpts, what do you think the speaker was hoping to invoke through his choice of words? What do you believe he did evoke? (References provided at the end of this post)

  1. “Starting today, we must pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off, and begin again the work of remaking America.”
     
  2. "Mothers and children trapped in poverty in our inner cities, rusted out factories scattered like tombstones across the landscape of our nation, an education system flush with cash but which leaves our young and beautiful students deprived of all knowledge. And the crime, and the gangs, and the drugs that have stolen too many lives and robbed our country of so much unrealized potential. This American carnage stops right here and stops right now."
     
  3. We can join forces, stop the shouting, and lower the temperature. For without unity, there is no peace, only bitterness and fury. No progress, only exhausting outrage. No nation, only a state of chaos. This is our historic moment of crisis and challenge, and unity is the path forward."

Words matter. Words reflect energy and intention. In English, you cry “Ouch!” when you stub your toe, not “Yay!” 

Words also generate energy and intention. After reading a chapter titled “The Danger of Drive” from my book, the CEO of one of the world’s largest financial institutions had the word “drive” swiped from communications to financial advisors. 

A Trump administration agency reportedly discouraged certain phrases, including “climate change” and "emissions reduction." The Biden administration is recommending the word “alien” be replaced in immigration legislation with the term “noncitizen.” Notice how the words you use reflect your values and intentions -- and how they might generate energy and intentions of those you lead.

Words you don’t say matter

“The slickest way in the world to lie is to tell the right amount of truth at the right time -- and then shut up.” ~ Robert A. Heinlein

As you prepare your next presentation, think seriously about what you choose not to say. If team members are worried about financial stability, curious about rumored layoffs or wondering about the status of an important initiative, you say more through your silence or avoidance of the topic. In the absence of information, people make up stories riskier than reality. No matter how thorny the topic, your truth-telling speaks volumes.

Don’t assume people know how you feel about a situation or about their efforts on the organization’s behalf. Tell them. When you share goals or key performance indicators, take ample time to explain the purpose and intention behind the outcomes you are asking people to work toward. Metrics without meaning are an inspirational opportunity wasted.

Your motivation to lead matters

Most inauguration speeches are written by professional speech writers who must interpret and reflect the speaker’s intentions and motives. Amanda Gorman, believed to be the youngest poet in US history to address an inauguration, was a thrilling exception. Through her riveting reading of the poem she wrote for the occasion, “The Hill We Climb,” you know her. You know her heart. The intention behind her words was palpable and unmistakable -- and you clearly understood her motivation to put herself on the biggest public stage in the world at this moment in history.

As she read:

Somehow, we’ve weathered and witnessed a nation that isn’t broken but simply unfinished. …

We lay down our arms so we can reach out our arms to one another. We seek harm to none and harmony for all. …

We will not be turned around or interrupted by intimidation because we know our inaction and inertia will be the inheritance of the next generation. Our blunders become their burdens. But one thing is certain, if we merge mercy with might and might with right, then love becomes our legacy and change our children’s birthright. 

You may not be a poet, but any presentation you make holds an opportunity for sharing your motivation to lead.

If your motivation to lead is based on suboptimal motivation -- fear, anger, resentment, power, status, financial gain and image-building -- it won’t matter what words you speak or write. People will pick up on your self-serving energy or the negative intention underlying your words.

If your motivation to lead is based on meaningful values, a noble purpose and the joy of lifting people up for the greatest good and welfare of all, your presentation will inspire through words spoken and unspoken.

Ultimately, your motivation to lead speaks louder than words. Your motivation to lead imbues your words -- and the people who experience them -- with your highest (or lowest) intentions and positive (or negative) energy.

The inaugural addresses were from, respectively: President Barack Obama, 2009; President Donald Trump, 2016; President Joe Biden, 2021.

 

Susan Fowler is on a mission to help you learn the skill of motivation. In her latest book, “Master Your Motivation: Three Scientific Truths for Achieving Your Goals,” she presents an evolutionary idea: motivation is a skill. Providing real-world examples and empirical evidence, Fowler teaches you how to achieve your goals and flourish as you succeed. She is also the author of bylined articles, peer-reviewed research, and eight books, including the best-selling “Self Leadership and The One Minute Manager" with Ken Blanchard and “Why Motivating People Doesn't Work ... And What Does: The New Science of Leading, Engaging, and Energizing." Tens of thousands of people worldwide have learned from her ideas through training programs. For more information and the free What’s Your MO? survey for exploring your motivational outlook, visit SusanFowler.com.

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