“Do me a favor and stop bringing her into these meetings; I can’t stand the sound of her voice.”
My jaw dropped when my aunt, a retired VP from a major mortgage lender, recounted this instruction she received from her senior boss, pertaining to one of her employees, many years ago.
“What did you do?” I asked.
She shook her head. “Nothing. I was so surprised when he said it – I hadn’t noticed anything particularly offensive about her voice myself – and he wasn’t exactly the ‘warm fuzzy type,’ so I just said okay. I didn’t know how to tell her, and I wouldn’t have known where to begin to help her, so that was that,” she said, remorsefully.
Looking back, it is painful to think about how that one split-second exchange altered the course of that woman’s career, salary, and life. All the meetings, insights, connections and opportunities she missed; the possible promotions and salary increases and bonuses she never received. And she never knew why, or was given the chance to fix the perceived problem and grow.
Mentorship, sponsorship, advocacy… call it what you will, but it needs to go beyond the perfunctory semi-annual or quarterly meeting to discuss career goals. For most people in that kind of relationship, it probably does, but does it extend to seeking, offering or accepting guidance on the way someone speaks? This is a huge factor in developing executive presence. Short of generally suggesting that someone work on his or her communication skills as is commonly referenced on the annual review, leadership communication tends to be a major missing link.
So what are some of the things to look for in the leadership communication skills in your mentee, and how can you help them work on those areas?
Communication Skills to Look For
Let’s start with content. When presenting information to senior leadership, employees frequently tend to provide too much detail – or “get lost in the weeds,” as they say. Remind them that it’s okay to get right to the point, justifying later as necessary or allow the audience to ask for more detail. Reassure them that they’ve been given the opportunity to present this work because they already have the benefit of the doubt that they are qualified and capable, and their results are trustworthy.
Getting more into the delivery, the ability to show poise and “grace under fire” are often demonstrated by how they control the pace of their speech. Whether they are talking for 30 seconds or 30 minutes, does it sound like one giant run-on sentence? When speakers can articulate their thoughts in finite sentences, much as they can when writing, they sound more in control.
Even if they are fast talkers, something as simple as remembering to pause, just for a second after each point, allows the listeners’ brains to catch up with their ears and digest the last point. Then the speaker can lead everyone ahead to the next point, together.
Along with adding that pause between sentences, “vocal punctuation” is equally important to sounding authoritative, and helping the listener understand when a sentence begins and ends. A problem in this area is that modern social patterns have popularized a bad habit known as “up-speak” or “up-talk,” which is where people sound like they’re always asking a question? At the ends of all their phrases and sentences? Even when they’re not? Which sounds insecure? And gets really annoying, you know?
The irony is that most people don’t realize when they do it – and it is just as prevalent in men as in women, and in Baby Boomers as in Millennials, contrary to popular belief. There may be variations, but it still has the same effect of sounding like the person is just droning on and on. Awareness of vocal tonality and the ability to control it is critical to making your desired impact when you speak.
So if you are mentoring someone, formally or informally, start listening for some of these patterns. Neglecting to address these issues can undermine all the helpful and well-intended guidance you are otherwise offering.
And if you really want to challenge yourself, start checking your own speech patterns; are you following the recommendations, or are you guilty of some of the pitfalls? Taking stock of your own good and bad speech habits and taking steps to improve the effectiveness of your own leadership communication is mentoring by example.
Do you have trouble determining which of these patterns or others are negatively influencing someone’s image or reputation? Are you unsure of how to talk to them about it, or how to help them improve? Or do you have other questions or feedback about this issue? If so, contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org or click here to schedule a 20-minute focus call to discuss it with me personally!