Guest Posting: Leadership Communication

Note from Kaveh: Periodically I invite thought leaders and practitioners who have done important work in the field of leadership to contribute as guest writers. Such is the case for this posting. Paul Black is a former actor and an accomplished leadership practitioner with a particular expertise in the area of communication effectiveness and executive presence.  We have worked together on several coaching assignments where one of the presenting issues was communication effectiveness and executive presence. Paul is one of the leaders in the leadership and coaching practice of my company, Philosophy IB.


Leadership Communication
by Paul Black

“The art of communication is the language of leadership.” – James Hume

The goal of any communication, other than the most social, is persuasion: to move your audience to think, say, and ideally do something different. As a leader, you are constantly trying to move people to the action that serves your objectives, and the more mindful you are about it the more success you will have. The wide array of communications you will undertake in a given week (from one-on-one meetings to large presentations) are all opportunities to persuade.  You will benefit from a systematic approach to thinking about and executing these interactions. What follows is an introduction to an approach which I have called the SAM Model:

At the center of the three interlocking circles is your ‘Sweet Spot’, where YOU (Self) deliver the RIGHT MESSAGES (Material) that move your AUDIENCE in the desired direction. This model applies to all and any interactions, from one-to-one conversations, to small group meetings, to large group presentations, to broadcast communications. The principles apply in each scenario in different proportions dependent on the specifics of the interaction.

With each of these elements, it’s important to recognize that you will have some natural tendencies that you will want to lean on, and some that you will need to work around. Since we have been communicating since birth, we’ve learned a lot of habits, not all of which are helping us. By raising our awareness of them, we can begin to be mindful about what we choose to use and what we need to develop.  In addition, we can choose a sub-set of specific elements to lean into or emphasize for one type of interaction, and a different sub-set for a different scenario.  In other words, what works well with a peer at a power breakfast, might not work so well with the C-suite in the afternoon. As with all personal development, mindfulness is foundational. Let’s take a closer look at each other three elements of SAM to understand them better.


I start with the audience because that’s where you should too.  It is easy not to do so, but to preclude this thinking is a fatal error.  Many individuals get so caught up in their own agenda that they forget to engage in adequate thinking about their audience.  You need to develop an understanding of and connection to your audience.  Preparation here is crucial.  Ask yourself the following two fundamental questions:

  • What does my audience WANT?
  • What does my audience NEED?

Make sure you know the difference. Here’s a simple example:  if my friend takes me out to lunch, and suggests “You need a healthy salad,” I’m much more likely to agree if I can get some of what I want (bacon bits in the dressing), and I’m much more likely to think it was a great experience. Balance out both Wants and Needs in your interaction, and you’ll set yourself up for success.  Speakers fail when they confuse their own objectives with the Wants and Needs of the audience – don’t make this mistake.


You can now begin to develop messages that will service both your audience’s Wants and Needs as well as your objectives. Some considerations here include:

Clarity of objective: Write out a clear one sentence description of your interaction. It will:

  • Define your purpose
  • Focus your energy
  • Provide you the only true measure of success

Structure and Flow:

  • Have a robust structure with a beginning, middle and end
    • Start: tell them what you’re going to tell them
    • Middle: tell it to them
    • End: tell them what you just told them.
  • Obey the “Rule of Three,” for example, three messages per slide
  • Use stories and personal anecdotes to add flavor and color

Visual Aids:  You have three tools in your content tool box. Ensure you think adequately about each:

  • What the audience SEES
  • What the audience HEARS
  • Your NOTES (it’s OK to have then, but they are not a substitute for practice!)


Finally we turn to you and the elements of your physical being and persona that you can control to bring success to your interaction. There are three buckets here:

Mindset: A critical piece that is often overlooked by the busy leader who believes she can “wing it” and succeed.  She often can, but she’s flirting with danger and may be courting disaster. Considerations include:

  • Clear articulation of success: write it down and use it to vision success.  Be crisp and precise
  • Imaging: pick a role model you admire and think about how he or she would do it….what can you learn from that person?

Vocal Quality:  I coach leaders who are told “…we can’t hear you…” or “You’re boring.”  The basic tools available to all of us are:

  • Volume
  • Rhythm (speed, or rate of delivery)
  • Clarity (enunciation)
  • Pitch (musicality or tune)
  • Style (e.g. didactic for credibility; conspiratorial for humor)

Physicality: This is most evident when a leader is presenting on her feet and needs to figure what to do with her hands, her feet, etc. Some simple considerations are:

  • Body language:  Understand your non-verbal vocabulary and use it mindfully because your audience is interpreting it constantly
  • Gestures:  make them genuine and fluid
  • Movement:  don’t hide behind a lectern, desk, or other physical object – add a little bit of flavor with some thoughtful movement to pique the audience’s interest

While the SAM model is simple, it is robust enough to be used in any interaction where you are communicating with substance.  It provides a useful framework to dissect the question of how to best communicate in any set of circumstances.  I have used it effectively in my coaching work with leaders to assess where their natural strengths are and where they need to spend some additional time preparing for their interaction. Here’s an example to illustrate:

REAL WORLD APPLICATION:  A Senior Vice-President wins over the Board

Steve was a successful SVP at an insurance services company, and unofficially, the successor to the CEO who was grooming him. The CEO, however, was fully aware that Steve had some career-limiting blind spots. In working directly with Steve, we assessed that he was technically brilliant, knew the industry and business intimately, and could lead his people from a place of intellectual superiority.  One of Steve’s challenges was interacting with the boardroom, who chaffed under what they preserved as an air of arrogance and “know-it-all-ness.”  The CEO was not blind to this and knew that his succession plan hinged, in part, on a shift in Steve’s ability to influence the board, without whose good grace he could never succeed.

We identified an opportunity where Steve would be making an important presentation to the board to request funding for a series of initiatives that under-pinned a large part of his operating plan for the following 18 months.  This would be no push-over presentation. The board would scrutinize his plans and could easily hold back funding for a wide variety of reasons, including, to put it bluntly, “not liking his attitude.”  To increase the stakes, this kind of presentation only happened at most once a quarter, and with such a tight agenda, he might not get a second bite at this cherry for 6 – 9 months.  Without a clear approval of funding for his initiatives, his operating plan for the next fiscal year would be in jeopardy, along with the CEO’s succession plan.

We met with Steve several days before the board was due to convene at a private ranch in Arizona. We set up a video camera with playback options so Steve could self-assess and we could work with him to make any necessary modifications.  However, it quickly became apparent that the technology was redundant, for reasons I’ll explain.   Steve launched into his presentation, which was thick with the technical justification of why his requested funding was imperative. We had agreed beforehand that he would have about 15 minutes to present and would anticipate about 15 minutes for questions, but by the time the quarter-hour mark was up he was only about 1/3 of the way through his dense slide deck. We stopped Steve and began to lean into the SAM model.  What did his Audience Want?  What were their Needs? Were his messages crisp and clear?  Were his material / slides appropriate?  What was his mental attitude (coercive, or generous, or…what?).  Steve was a quick learner and quickly understood that he had to make some serious shifts.  After an hour of coaching and discussion he had a clear plan of what needed to change and how.  Despite his very busy SVP schedule, he committed to carving out the time before the Arizona presentation to re-visit the key areas we identified together….the ball was in his court.

When the presentation came, Steve, with a clear view of what his Audience Wanted and Needed, along with a new, leaner set of messages and a significantly altered mindset, stood up to make his case to the board.  We later learned that within two minutes of his starting to speak one board member discretely turned to another and whispered, “Something’s changed here…has he been coached?”   Steve’s presentation was a roaring success: the board funded all his initiatives for the following year.  His operating plan was now well positioned for execution, and the CEO’s succession plan appeared to be falling into place, which was good news for both the CEO and Steve.


About Kaveh Naficy
Kaveh is the leader of Heidrick and Struggles executive coaching practice in North America. Kaveh focuses on working with leaders placed to make transformational and creative changes in their organizations. Kaveh has a proven record of success in harnessing the strengths of these leaders to achieve accelerated business solutions. He is able to create significant insights through reflective thinking, presence, and disciplined follow-through. Executives who have worked with Kaveh say that his strengths are his deep insights into the realities of the current and future business world, accelerated scanning of the environment and competition; creative out of the box thinking, and leveraging the collective intelligence of their teams and creating the organizational culture to support and foster the appropriate organizational design and strategies. They also point their deep trust and personal connectivity with Kaveh, his coaching approach, and style.

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