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The Language of Leadership
To lead effectively, you must communicate well. Communicating is tricky because the brain is complicated. It has three major parts – the “instinctive brain,” the “emotional brain” and the “logical brain” – each with its own way of perceiving the world. You must persuade them all.
“There is a secret Language of Leadership: a secret set of physical, verbal and vocal cues and signals that has existed for tens of thousands of years which still determines who makes it to the top in business and politics today.”
The “instinctive brain” developed around five million years ago. It regulates unconscious processes like breathing and the circulatory system, and it scans the environment for potential danger. It efficiently makes snap judgments about whether a stranger is a threat or not.
“Great leadership is intrinsically about great communication.”
The “emotional brain” secretes chemicals that promote self-confidence, love or fear. When such emotions are in play, people act with enthusiasm and passion.
“Neuroscientists have shown that there are two separate parts of the brain that process what people say: The left brain processes the meaning, while the right brain processes the music.”
The “logical brain” is the largest and newest part of the brain. Your logical brain judges the soundness of information and ideas. It is capable of great discernment, but has trouble distinguishing logical ideas from those that only appear logical.
“For leaders, it’s not enough to make sure the substance of our argument is right, we must also be concerned with the style.”
Persuasion and the Instinctive Brain
Leaders stumble when they attempt to persuade an audience with an exclusively logical argument. You don’t consider an argument’s logical points until you sift it through your instinctive brain and then through your emotional brain. You may be unaware that you don’t even listen to an argument until you’ve made an instinctive judgment about whether the speaker is a credible leader. As a speaker, begin every pitch by appealing to your listener’s instinctive brain.
“It’s your responsibility as a leader to make people feel good about what they do: not as an act of benevolence or charity, but because that’s how you get the best out of people.”
To engage the instinctive brain, speak its language and focus on its primary concerns – “safety and rewards.” A leader can ease fears about safety by cultivating group cohesiveness. In primitive times, gathering in groups was an effective defense against attacks. The brain reinforced this behavior by secreting oxytocin, a chemical that enhances feelings of closeness and connection. Leaders who effectively unite groups can unleash the reward system of oxytocin and captivate their audience members’ instinctive minds.
“The instinctive mind is attracted to specific types of people: those who offer the promise of safety and rewards.”
The Power of Appearance
The process of tailoring your message to the instinctive mind starts before you say a word. Cultivate an appearance of strength, of being someone who provides safety and rewards. The way you breathe sends a message to your audience members’ instincts. If you breathe quickly and speak in short sentences, you communicate that you share their fears. If you breathe deeply and offer long sentences, you reassure your audience’s instincts that you can calmly meet any threats. So, use a lower vocal register and exploit the power of pauses. In normal conversations, pauses feel awkward – but in a speech pausing after each important idea conveys boldness.
“The simpler and more accessible your language, the more likely you are to win people over.”
Target the instinctive brain with rhetorical devices and strategies such as metaphors that replace abstract concepts with images. When economist Adam Smith spoke of “the invisible hand of the market,” his metaphor provided a clarifying image of abstruse, theoretical forces. Choose metaphors with care. For instance, people hold generally positive views of the “Arab Spring.” Perhaps the pleasant metaphor obscures the reality of relentless turmoil and violence. Reframe it as the “Arab furnace,” and you’ll provoke a different response. Business leaders often use automobile, military or sports metaphors, but these can backfire. From a leader’s perspective, a car metaphor appears apt: You might see the business as a smoothly running machine, with you as the driver. But people in your company’s workforce may feel they are merely cogs responding to the driver’s commands.
“Great leaders deliberately use repetition. This creates the illusion of authentic, spontaneous emotion even when they are speaking from a pre-prepared text.”
Avoid mechanical metaphors. Stick with images from the natural world, which speak directly to the instinctive brain’s desire for safety and rewards. When you refer to your company as a family, for instance, you inspire feelings of closeness. If you describe your enterprise as a journey, you help your staff visualize a path that they follow toward your goal. Draw powerful metaphors from images of food, water, the weather and the human body. Such metaphors “plant ideas deep in the instinctive mind, where they take root and grow, spreading around, affecting the way people think, feel and act.”
“Research…shows people are more likely to believe something is true if it rhymes, than if it doesn’t rhyme.”
Strategies for Reaching the Instinctive Brain
Target the instinctive brain by using other tactics, including:
“The body language must match the verbal: If they are not matching, it is the body language that will prevail.”
- “Empathy” – When you show you share your listeners’ concerns, you speak to their instinctive need for safety. To demonstrate empathy, listen carefully to a person’s concerns and repeat them back to him or her. Showing that you understand people’s viewpoints activates the secretion of serotonin and oxytocin in their brains. To boost the power of these chemicals and strengthen your connection to your listeners, use the word “we,” not “I” or “you.”
- The “power of purpose” – When you instill a sense of purpose – of striving for a goal bigger than profits – people perform even mundane tasks with passion. They feel like the NASA janitor who viewed his job as “helping to put a man on the moon.” As a leader, you must conceptualize your company’s mission and communicate it to your team. You can do this through rhetoric – metaphors come in handy – and by acting with purpose yourself. Your passion switches on other people’s chemical reward systems, pumping up their commitment with doses of dopamine and oxytocin.
“Most modern communication starts and ends with logic, which is why it fails.”
The Emotional Brain
Connect with listeners’ “emotional brains” to promote enthusiasm for your ideas. The most famous speeches of great leaders like Winston Churchill or Martin Luther King were appeals to the emotional brain that rallied listeners to face the challenges of war and racial inequality.
“You win over the instinctive and emotional brain before even trying to come in with the logic.”
Rhetorical devices such as telling stories stimulate the powerful brain chemicals that stir emotions. A good story connects directly to the brain’s reward system. A story is not reality – even when relating a historical event, you are asking listeners to imagine the scenes you depict – but the brain responds as if the events are real. Brain scans reveal that if a character in a story grabs something, the listener’s brain lights up in the area that controls gripping. The brain releases the same chemicals when experiencing imaginary events as it does when experiencing reality.
“A great smile can be the making of a great leader.”
A vivid character in a story can stimulate secretion of the connection chemical oxytocin. Conflict and tension induce the stress chemical cortisol. And the resolution of the story stimulates the chemical reward of dopamine. Craft stories from events in your own life, from the history of your company, from world history – even from ancient mythology. Introduce a character for your listeners to connect to and identify with; make the character’s world come alive with details, sights, sounds and smells. Have the character face a painful conflict or dilemma. When the character resolves the conflict, he or she should gain the insight you’re promoting. To make the insight memorable by linking it to the chemical reward that accompanies a satisfying resolution.
Other rhetorical devices that stir the emotional brain include:
- “Repetition” – Every time Martin Luther King repeated the phrase “I have a dream” in his most famous speech, it gained emotional power. Churchill achieved the same effect with, “We shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields.” People naturally speak repetitively when they are angry or upset. By mimicking that tendency, you convey a sense of genuine emotion even when you’re reading from a prepared script. When you set up a predictable pattern for your listeners, you reward them by fulfilling their expectations.
- “Praise” – Flattery improves everyone’s performance. When you praise your team, you are rewarding them by making them feel appreciated, worthy and competent. They will strive to repay that reward by acting in a way that triggers those emotions from within. Remember that the leaders’ primary task is to fulfill their followers’ needs. Self-esteem is one of humankind’s most basic needs.
- “Resonant” words – In all your communication, try to choose words that cultivate emotional involvement and connection. Business leaders often fall back on bloodless buzzwords, such as “collaborative,” “benchmarking” or “deliverables.” But emotional, vivid words pack a punch that jargon and technical terms never achieve: It’s the difference between Dr. King saying, “I have a global strategy” and declaring, “I have a dream.” Start by replacing phrases like “exceeds expectations” with “great.” Don’t be afraid to say you “love” an idea. Be sure to pepper your communications with plenty of personal pronouns – we, you and I.
The Logical Brain
Appealing to the logical brain means offering the relevant facts and statistics. You must present substance with style. The logical brain doesn’t function like a computer, dispassionately crunching data. The two hemispheres of the brain process the information differently. The left side analyzes the meaning of the words, while the right side enjoys the “music” – the rhetorical devices that infuse an argument with the rhythm and patterns. Detecting patterns is one strategy the brain uses to judge the soundness of an assertion. Your can be more persuasive by weaving patterns into your argument, such as:
- The “Rule of Three” – Your facts, selling points and proposals are more persuasive when you present them in groups of three. This device builds a perception of comprehensiveness, confidence and faith. Advertisers used threes in slogans (“Snap, Crackle, Pop” or “Beanz Means Heinz”). Most people naturally use the rule of three to describe what they are passionate about. It’s a great device for injecting sizzle when you have to speak about topics that don’t really provoke your enthusiasm.
- “Balance” – People seek balance, and they are more likely to accept an argument that appears evenhanded. When you present two views on an issue such as using nuclear power, you make your conclusion look more dispassionate and considered. Alliteration is a helpful balancing tool. When you use a phrase like “listen and learn,” the similar consonants imply a balance between the two ideas and make the idea more memorable.
- “Rhyme” – An argument that rhymes is more persuasive than one that doesn’t. That’s why rhymes are effective in advertising slogans. Use rhymes when you present the nut of your argument, the sound bite or slogan you want your listeners to remember.
- “Perspective” – People take positions based on their viewpoint about an issue. Shift their perspective to change their minds. Start your argument with a general overview that most people find agreeable and work toward your specific position. Once people start agreeing with you, they will find it hard to stop.
Putting Persuasion into Practice
Persuasion is a process of climbing a ladder through the levels of the brain. To get past the first rung, use the tactics associated with the instinctive level, such as empathy or metaphors. Continue with tactics appealing to the emotional and the logical levels. For instance, imagine you are explaining a strategy to your employees and one of them raises a difficult question. Your first step is to reassure your staff members that you have their well-being in mind, perhaps by using a family metaphor to describe the workplace. Then move to the emotional level. Boost their confidence and sense of connection by praising their work or recounting the story of the company’s founding and mission. Appeal to the logical brain by offering a group of three performance goals. Starbucks describes its mission as “one person, one cup, one neighborhood.”
Figure out what people need, whether it’s safety, connection or self-esteem. When you provide for their needs, you will win their support.[/text_block]