How to sound like a leader in 2021

Did you know that over 60% of UK workers think their boss does not possess good leadership skills – and 40% actually left a previous job because of this. My specially commissioned research led me to ask this question: What does a good leader sound like in 2021?

As you know, there has been a seismic change in leadership style over the last 20 years. The old ‘command and control’ leader is not only out-dated but is also unacceptable to people under the age of 25.

For senior leaders born long before either Generation Z or the post millennials, this requires a total mind shift – understanding that being a strong leader doesn’t simply mean telling people what to do: it means listening, coaching and empowering them in a way that inspires them to grow.

How can today’s leaders speak so they truly connect with every audience, every time?

Here are my five do’s and don’ts to being leader in 2021:

Five Do’s:

1. Be yourself

This starts with using your own voice. Try to sound like you usually do when you’re talking to your friends and family. Speak with a soft, relaxed tone – avoid over-projecting and sounding like a stern teacher. If you have a microphone, trust it and let it do the work for you.

Use words you would usually use. Don’t be tempted to use formal words because they’ll make you sound and feel stiff. ‘It’s great to see you here’ is so much better than ‘It’s my pleasure to welcome you here on this auspicious occasion’.

Try this exercise to relax your voice for before you speak: Stand and face a wall. Place both hands on the wall about shoulder height and push really hard, as if you’re trying to push the wall a couple of metres in the direction you’re pushing. After pushing, stand normally and try speaking out loud. See how much more relaxed and emotionally connected your voice sounds.

2. Be present

Your audience doesn’t want to feel you’ve given the same talk a hundred times before. Keep it spontaneous. Change the order in which you say things. Keep yourself on your toes. If you stay present, so will your audience.

An actor playing Hamlet saying the famous lines ‘To be or not to be?’ has to imagine that it’s the first time he’s ever said those words. He can’t say, ‘To be or not to be? That is the question … In fact, it’s the same question I asked myself at the matinée this afternoon!’

3. Start well

To grab your audience right from the start, try to capture your key message in the first sentence. This could be used in one of four classic openers:

1.   The Question: e.g. ‘Have you ever found X to be a problem?’

2.   The Solution: e.g. ‘We all know X is a problem – well, I’d like to offer a solution.’

3.   The Shock: e.g. ‘If we don’t find a solution to X, we’re in deep trouble.’

4.   The Story: e.g. ‘So there I was, just 21 years old, when the telephone rang…’

4. Practice

People often say they don’t have time to prepare and that they feel more relaxed if they ‘just wing it’ – but this is no excuse. I would never go on stage without rehearsing. Try practising speaking your words out loud – it will flag up any difficult words you might stumble on, iron out any clumsy links and allows you to time yourself. 150 words a minute is a pretty good guide.

5. Speak with Energy, Clarity and Humanity

To speak in an engaging fashion, we need about 10% more energy than usual – anymore and we can come across like a game show host. We need clarity in our argument and in our delivery. And, most importantly, we need to speak with humanity. It’s this human tone, in our voice and our choice of words, that makes us engaging and believable.

To make yourself sound relaxed and emotionally connected, try this simple tip. If you’re standing when giving a speech or a presentation, try clenching your buttocks or your thighs for the first ten seconds. It will make your voice sound more centred and more relaxed. Give it a go – no-one will be able to see you’re doing it!

Five Don’ts:

1. Don’t make it all about you

As the old adage says, ‘Pride comes before a fall’. Big yourself up and your audience will want you to slip on that banana skin. Always try to speak with equal status – sound pompous at your peril. Make everything relevant for your audience. If, for example, you were speaking to a room full of doctors, you could say, ‘Of course, as doctors you’d know …’ to make it feel relevant to them. Remember: it’s not about you. It’s always about the audience.

2. Don’t treat the audience as one mass

It’s tempting to ‘de-focus’ when speaking to a group or to look above the audience’s heads, but the secret of eye contact is to hold one thought with one person and one thought with another. And in a larger hall, if you can’t actually see everyone clearly, direct one thought to one area and one thought to another; so that by the end everyone feels that you’ve been talking specifically to them.

3. Don’t avoid the elephant in the room

If you suspect the audience are not on your side and are holding hold certain prejudices or fears, it’s usually better to address this head on rather than trying to hide it away under the carpet. Better to start with, ‘You’ve probably all read the rumours in the press, well I’m here today to tell you …’. If you don’t do this, they won’t be listening to you and will be simply waiting for you to get on to the topic they’re worried about.

 4. Don’t take yourself too seriously

When we watch someone on a platform taking themselves too seriously, we can’t wait for them to spill their coffee or trip up on a loose cable. As Billy Connolly said, ‘Never trust a man who, when left alone in a room with a tea cosy, doesn’t try it on.’ A little self-deprecating humour goes a long way.

 5. Don’t rush

Wait two seconds before you speak. If you start speaking too quickly, it will look like you just want to get it over with. So stand and wait two seconds before you speak – it will look like you are comfortable standing there and will give you an impressive natural authority.

A great way to slow down, is to do this simple breathing exercise before your talk: Breathe in through your nose slowly for a count of three; then breathe out for a count of three. Repeat this three times. This should take a total of 18 seconds. In that time you can lower your heart rate and you will feel calmer.

Essentially, there are three fundamental qualities we need when speaking as a leader: Energy, Clarity and Humanity. If we demonstrate that we have all three, we’ll come across as focused, authentic and charismatic. And we will connect with Generation Z as well.


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