Leadership is about the art and science of forming teams to accomplish stated goals for an organization. Having excellent verbal communication skills is critical.

Specific communication skills that are needed include professional-level listening and questioning skills, and public speaking skills. Soft skills such as empathy and compassion also are important.

For example, when a physician sees a new patient, they listen to the message and to the underlying emotion. A corporate speech pathologist takes it one step further, listening to the message (what the person said), the format (how the message was phrased, and the words were pronounced) and the emotion (such as frustration, enthusiasm or fear, if any were expressed). A physician asks many relevant questions, and a business leader may also. Examples are, “How will doing this project benefit our long-term strategy?” Or “Do we have the critical resources of time, materials or funds to accomplish this at a proficient level?” Planning out questions to ask in a flowchart or even a simple list helps leaders consider their approach.

If the listener expresses an emotion, such as frustration, comment on that. For instance, you might respond with, “You sound really frustrated with this. Could you tell me more?” Then wait and wait some more if needed. The other person often will share more information that is relevant.

Asking the Right Questions

Open-ended questions (such as those starting with who, what, when. where, why and how) encourage speakers to talk more, but can back-fire when used with more introverted employees, or those who are not proficient in a given area. In that case, use close-ended questions, such as yes/no questions, until the person becomes more comfortable. Close-ended questions are appropriate for people who are very talkative when only brief answers may be wanted. For example, “Do you come from an electrical or a masonry background?”

Coaching, Delegating and Public Speaking

Coaching others is another important skill in helping to develop future leaders. Coaching effectively often involves asking open-ended questions initially and then more detailed ones. For example, “How would you recommend we ____?” Then, to get the person to reflect critically on a missed detail, ask “What are the implications of _____? How would that impact our employees, our vendors, our customers and our customers’ customers? What would be a better way to approach this?”

Delegating is a great way to save leaders’ time and also to build skills in staff. It can fail easier though, if the directions that were given were unclear or incomplete. When giving the directions, ideally in writing, consider whether they answer the “5 W’s and an H” (who, what, when, where, why and how). Are the directions specific enough for the person to easily understand them without having to ask for help?

Many people find public speaking to be uncomfortable or downright scary. Learning to speak in public can involve learning a series of easier skills, such as why powerful introductions and conclusions are important and specific examples of them that can be used. Audience engagement skills can be used to keep the attendees focused on the speech; different ones are appropriate for in-person and virtual audiences. Learners need to know how to remember the points they plan to make if slides will not be used. If slides are to be used, how can they enhance the presentation?

Some people believe extemporaneous speaking (as in “just say a few words about ___”) to be the most difficult skill to master, yet it can be done. Knowing this skill can make a learner feel much more self-confident. The key here is to start practicing with topics that have no special importance to a given learner. For example, “Give a one-minute talk about how you buy new socks.” (If your learner is in the sock or logistics industries, skip this topic!) Allow the speaker to invent facts and statistics during this practice exercise, on topics of no particular interest to them. Gradually make the topics more relevant and interesting to the person. If doing this with a group, invite each person to make their own hierarchy of topics, from boring to fascinating. Then start teaching a few techniques, such as starting with a sentence acknowledging the listener. An example would be “We both enjoy____.” Then have them end with a call to action, or a summary sentence to enhance the presentation’s message.

Some speakers also have concerns about how fast they talk, particularly when nervous, how clearly they say certain words or sounds, their vocabulary, or their intonation (how their voice goes up and down to make them sound enthusiastic or boring). These are valid concerns; these issues can be improved in many speakers. However, these skills go beyond the scope of this article and many corporate trainers. The appropriate expert would be a corporate speech pathologist.

Knowledge of how to read and use body language and tones of voice are crucial in a leader. As the leader walks among their employees, they are constantly checking the leader’s body language. Does the leader appear tired, enthusiastic, interested in something or frustrated? Are they walking slower or faster than usual, and what could that mean for their team members?

Meeting management focuses heavily on understanding excellent communication skills. In meetings where attendees respond verbally, interrupting others has a negative impact. The leader should call on attendees to talk and enforce a “no interrupting” rule. When interrupted by others, the speakers often get frustrated. They may get very angry when someone else tries to take credit for their idea, or even tries to explain their own idea to them! Some attendees refuse to talk in such a disrespectful atmosphere. The change in behavior has to come from a firm leader who explains the new rule, why it is important, and then asks interrupters to please allow the speaker to finish. A leader’s job is to get results on stated goals, by educating, inspiring and motivating people to work under their leadership. Excellent communication skills are a key to making this happen.