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The communicator’s secret weapon

Great communicators inspire and drive action. Here's how they do it.

5 min read


The communicator's secret weapon


Effective communication is more a journey than a destination, said Gary Mills, cofounder and chief operations officer at Pinnacle Performance, a communications-skills training company in Chicago.

“Great speakers are made, not born,” said Mills during a fast-moving 75-minute session at SHRM 2018. “We’re all trying to get better.”

And for good reason. Today’s knowledge-based economy has created new demand for communication skills. Findings from a Pew Research study found an 83% increase, since 1980, in hiring for jobs that require strong social skills, including interpersonal and communication. Employers want people who can listen, convey information clearly, and engage with others in a way that fosters productivity and morale.

So how do we get there? Mills outlined a three-step method developed by him and his Pinnacle Performance cofounder and CEO David Lewis. Mills and Lewis are both professional actors who worked in television, film and theater prior to launching their company. Their approach, known as the Pinnacle Method, is based on skills they learned during their acting careers. The pair discuss the model in depth in their new book The Bullseye Principle, which launched in April. Mills outlined the approach during his presentation at SHRM.

There are three steps to influential communication, said Mills; they are:

  1. analyze your audience
  2. understand what action your message should compel
  3. modify your delivery to drive the desired outcome

The model revolves around two components: intention and objective. Objective is what the speaker wants—the goal—and intention is how he or she is going to get it, explained Mills. The two concepts work together in something Mills and Lewis call the persuasion equation: “I want to [intention] my audience so that my audience will [objective].”

“These are the communicator’s secret weapon,” said Mills.

But what does this look like in practice? Mills and Lewis detail the full suite of tools in their book (and it’s refreshingly uncomplicated) but here are a few practical takeaways from Mills’ session.

Stand up straight. Remember when Mom said not to slouch? Turns out she was right. A tall, straight posture helps project confidence, said Mills. He calls this home base position. “From here I can do anything,” Mills said. “[T]his body language is confident, open and relaxed. Anything I do as a communicator that deviates from a strong home base is going to change what you make of it.”

Keep it short. Don’t lose your message in a wordy delivery. The longer you go on, the more likely you are to bury your point, say the wrong thing, repeat yourself or bore your audience. How do you avoid this? “Stop talking,” said Mills. “Keep it concise. Say less. Don’t be afraid of silence.”

Slow down. Do you get nervous speaking in meetings or presenting information? Slow down, said Mills. A deliberate pace, with intermittent pauses, helps demonstrate confidence and poise. “The faster you go, it just seems like you want to get it over with and get out of there,” Mills explained. “So slow down.”

Don’t point. Gestures help you connect with your audience. When gesturing to a person, use an open hand, said Mills. “It’s okay to point at things; it’s not okay to point at people,” he explained. Avoid gestures below the waist; they can make you appear weak or small. Above all, be natural. “As long as your gesture is supporting whatever it is you’re saying, you should be in good shape,” Mills said.

Ditch verbal viruses. Get rid of words like “ah” or “um” that sneak into your communication and clutter your message. These verbal viruses, as Mills called them, are distracting, annoying and damaging to a confident presence. The worst place to have a verbal virus? The beginning of an answer to a question. (Your client: “Can you fill this order in three weeks?” You: “Um, yes.”) “You can’t come across as credible if you have verbal viruses,” Mills said.

Careful the sucker punch. Tough questions go with the territory in HR but the ones we’re not expecting can land like a punch in the mouth. A connector statement can help you stay on your feet. These statements connect your answer to the person’s question, explained Mills, giving the example of “Good question; let’s discuss that.” Connector statements buy you time so you can formulate your response. “[O]nce the words come out, you own them,” said Mills. “You’re going to be judged on that. Be careful what comes out.”

Shift gears. You have about five minutes to capture people’s attention before they get distracted and tune out, said Mills, citing a study by Lloyd’s Bank of London. Combat distractibility with a pattern interrupt. “[A pattern interrupt] is anything you can do to shift gears and buy another five minutes,” Mills explained, offering ideas such as changing speakers, showing a video or telling a story, among others.

These tools, and others found in the book, will help you make your message stick and keep listeners engaged, said Mills. And it is your job to make sure your audience is engaged, he emphasized.

“If your audience is bored during your presentation, who’s to blame? The speaker. The burden of engagement, in what we call The Pinnacle Methodology, always lies with the speaker,” said Mills.


Kanoe Namahoe is an editor with SmartBrief in Washington DC. She covers issues related to education technology and the workforce.


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