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Honing Speaking Skills Makes Executives More Effective Leaders

IN the high-tech business world, computers often become substitutes for face-to-face communication.

But Sandy Linver, a communications expert, says the individual is the most valuable communication tool in a company. Her philosophy: Machines don't communicate. People do.

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In 1973, Ms. Linver founded Speakeasy Inc., with offices in Atlanta and San Francisco, to help executives improve their verbal communication skills.

Communication is about self-awareness, Linver says. ``When you work on your own communication and on getting better, you are really working on [improving] yourself,'' she says. This view of individualizing communication is what makes Speakeasy unique, she adds.

Linver, who has studied speech and dramatics since she was a child, worked in television for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation and also was a public school teacher. She has written three books on communication.

Her most recent, published this year, is entitled, ``The Leader's Edge'' (Simon & Schuster), illustrating how some of her executive clients have used their communication skills to improve their leadership ability.

``I actually think my teaching taught me more than my theater did because communication in business should be very real,'' Linver said in an interview last week in Boston. ``We don't teach acting. We probably deal with more reality than some people would like us to,'' referring to the feedback she gives clients.

Most Speakeasy clients are large corporations, particularly top executives and their management teams. Clients include such corporate giants as The Coca-Cola Company, Arthur Andersen & Co., Motorola Inc., Apple Computer Inc., and Viacom Inc. About 60 percent of her clients are men versus 95 percent 20 years ago, Linver says.

While Speakeasy offers three-day seminars and training workshops, many corporate executives work with Linver privately over a period of several years. The goal is not only to improve their presentation and public speaking skills but to make them more effective leaders.

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``It's not so much that [these executives] are terrified of speaking, but they're terrified of not being the best that they can be,'' she says.

Within the last decade, corporate downsizing and restructuring have thrust many executives into leadership positions that they do not always feel qualified for, Linver explains.

``They're nervous about not being able to inspire their organizations.... And for many of them, it's a personal stretch and a personal risk that's very different,'' she says.

``They may risk hundreds of millions of dollars in deals, but to stand up in front of a group and be open and vulnerable for some of them is very different,'' she adds.

In addition, the business climate has changed, Linver points out. Fewer executives today give public speeches. Most give boardroom presentations to eight or nine people and use video conferencing.

``Although people may not feel as much isolation as they do when they're a public speaker in front of 500 [people], I think in those [boardroom] environments that the ability to make things happen through communication is becoming more and more important,'' Linver says.

The Speakeasy curriculum is two-pronged: Using a series of video tapes, Linver evaluates both the speaker's content and his or her style.

``The goal from beginning to end of a course,'' she stresses, ``is for a person to see a video tape [of himself or herself] and say, `That's me.' ''

The emphasis is always on the individual: ``We're most concerned that what we do reflects you.''

Linver hesitates to give any speaking tips, emphasizing that there are no hard and fast rules to effective communication. But she does outline the general Speakeasy curriculum: Regarding content, the speaker should focus on an overall theme and then use two or three ideas to convey it. Too often, she says, a speaker bombards the audience with 10 different points. The speaker should also know what sort of audience he or she is addressing.

As for style, the speaker should enunciate clearly - many people are lazy speakers, she says - and should maintain a balanced stance with weight evenly distributed and shoulders and chest relaxed. When men get nervous, Linver says, they tend to puff up their chest and pull their shoulders back. This comes across as arrogant. Although women don't stand with their feet apart, she adds, because claiming more space raises questions about how much power they are entitled to, she recommends that women should.

``Businesspeople,'' she says, ``too often look at communication as intellectual ... and they forget that it's also physical.''

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