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Employing the Language of Leadership.

written by MO.com Subject Matter Resource Dr. Marlene Caroselli

We’ve studied the opposite of leadership communications. By examining gaffes and verbal indiscretions, we’ve learned how not to influence:

— By clouding rather than clarifying your point

— By using language that floats above the heads of your audience

— By being insensitive

— By being inaccurate

— By giving words your own definition so your errors seem less serious

— By being too emphatic.

Now let’s explore some of the successful verbal techniques used by influencers who are good at what they do. (Remember that several experts believe that influence and leadership are inextricably entwined.)

Assume you are scheduled to deliver a short speech following the person who is now speaking. Which of the following persons do you think would be the toughest act to follow? Circle your answer.

a) Television talk show host Glenn Beck

b) Motivational speaker Les Brown

c) President Barack Obama

d) Comedian Jay Leno

e) Television personality Oprah Winfrey

f) Retired NBA coach Phil Jackson

g) Actress Angelina Jolie

h) Businessman Tom Peters

i) Golfer Tiger Woods

Based on the selection you made, what does this person say or do that matters to his or her audience? Think of at least two details and record them.

Next, think about how you could use some element of influence employed by these individuals (or another effective influencer) in your next influence effort.

Use the list as a discussion prompt with those who are considered influential in your organization or community. As you observe them, add other methods used by successful influencers.

At the end of three months, ask a friend or co-worker to be present at the next occasion when you are expected to influence others. Have your colleague evaluate your presentation on the basis of the effective attributes you have listed.

The individuals quoted below could easily be included in the cadre of successful influencers. Read these excerpts from speeches they have delivered. Then, examine the stylistic devices that were used.


Jesse Jackson, more than 30 years ago, spoke to teachers about the problems we face in the education of our children. Imagine yourself as a member of that audience. As you study his words, determine what phrasing impacts you most and why.

“We are producing the most educated, articulate, and brilliant sidewalk superintendents the world has ever seen.”

“The principal role of leadership is to keep hope alive. I don’t think you’ve done very well in recent years.”

“The time spent inside [the schoolhouse] doesn’t lead up, it just leads out. And that’s not good enough–not good enough for the children, not good enough for the teachers, and not good enough for the country.”

There are at least four elements here that will serve you well in your influence efforts. Can you identify two of them?

His many years of ministry work, coupled with his leadership and media opportunities, have made Reverend Jackson one of the most compelling of all speakers. Among the many verbal techniques he employs are the following:

1. He is predictably unpredictable. He sets us up to expect one thing and then he suddenly switches the direction in which we have been moving. We see this in the words “We are producing the most educated, articulate, and brilliant….” To an audience of teachers, pride is no doubt beginning to swell. But the next phrase “sidewalk super-intendents” immediately pricks the inflating balloon of accomplishment.

2. He employs catchy phrases, such as “sidewalk superintendents.” Sound bites such as this one depend on alliteration, among other things.

3. He uses simple words. It was Winston Churchill who noted that “big men use little words.” In the first example from Jesse Jackson, there are 16 words, 11 of which are monosyllables. The second example has 20 words, 17 of which are monosyllables.

4. He issues a challenge. The audience was no doubt sitting up and taking serious notice as he asserted, “I don’t think you’ve done very well in recent years.”

5. He plays with words. “The time…doesn’t lead up, it just leads out.”

6. He makes bold statements: “And that’s not good enough.”

7. He uses parallel structure by repeating the phrases “not good enough for….”


Not surprisingly, we find the comparison to the earlier administration appearing in another inaugural address–that of Ronald Reagan.

“When I took this oath four years ago, I did so in a time of economic stress. Voices were raised saying that we had to look to our past for greatness and glory. But we, the present-day Americans, are not given to looking backward. In this blessed land, there is always a better tomorrow.

“Four years ago, I spoke to you of a new beginning and we have accomplished that. But in another sense, our new beginning is a continuation of that beginning created two centuries ago when, for the first time in history, government, the people said, was not our master, it is our servant; its only power will be that which we the people allow it to have. That system never failed us. But for a time, we failed the system.”

Once again, you have an opportunity to analyze the words of a beloved leader and learn how he used language, in this case, to influence the American public to sustain the confidence and optimism he had generated in his first term. Identify successful techniques and record them.

Perhaps more than any president in recent history, Ronald Reagan captured the hearts and minds of millions across the world. An examination of his linguistic style unearths several effective techniques.

1. Throughout his speeches are alliterative phrases, such as “greatness and glory” in this excerpt.

2. Reagan inspires by appealing to a national pride–“But we…are not given to looking backward.”

3. He uses opposites, the past and the promise of a better tomorrow.

4. Given statistics about the number of people who have faith in a higher power, he bonds with the majority by using the word “blessed.”

5. He personifies, making the government a “servant” and not a “master.”

6. He uses turnaround phrases: “That system never failed us. But for a time, we failed the system.”

Think of some message you will have to deliver in the near future, a message that you hope will influence another person(s) to take action you believe should be taken. Jot down what you plan to say.

Next, rework that message, using at least three of the techniques described in these analyses. Label the three you have selected as you incorporate them into your message of influence.


The first 1996 presidential debate, held in Hartford, Connecticut, began with the President speaking these words.

“I want to begin by saying again how much I respect Senator Dole and his record of public service, and how hard I will try to make this campaign and this debate one of ideas, not insults. Four years ago I ran for President at a time of high unemployment and rising frustration. Four years ago, you took me on faith. Now, there’s a record.”

Do the same thing now. Study these four sentences and try to isolate elements that might influence voters to support the President and not his opponent. Record your ideas.

Clinton has garnered praise from a number of sources for his masterful use of language. See if your analysis of his words matches the analyses below.

1. Clinton’s opening words constitute a very clever ploy. Not only does he appear gracious by expressing his admiration for the Bob Dole, but he also places the debate on “high moral ground.” Should his opponent begin with attacks on Clinton’s character, he will appear to be relying on insults and not ideas. Few would dare make themselves vulnerable in this way after what the President said about discussing ideas.

2. Clinton acknowledges there have been problems–high unemployment and rising frustration. Typically, disclosure helps create the sense that the influencer can be trusted. Of course, the implication is that the President inherited those problems but nonetheless he cuts to the quick by telling us what his focus has been.

3. Clinton juxtaposes long sentences with medium-length sentences, with short sentences.

4. He indirectly compliments the audience’s good judgment for having taking him on faith.

5. He sets up a dichotomy between faith and fact.

6. This bipolar structure permits him, in just a few sentences, to introduce the accomplishments of his first term in office.


To influence well, you must not only advance by taking the offensive, but you must also be prepared to defend your position when it comes under attack. When you address an audience, you are pre-active: you inspire and motivate and explore ideas prior to execution. You encourage others to be pro-active and re-active. Some of the reactions, though, may be critical.

If that happens, you must be non-defensive in your defense. Even if you suspect the questions or comments fall into the heckling category, you must maintain a professional stance as you reply. It is altogether possible the questions are simply questions and not criticisms or indictments. Even if the responses to your proposal are vitriolic in nature, you must still respond from an information-sharing and not a sarcasm-venting position. The following tips, used alone or in combination, will assist you in dealing with objections to the proposals you make.

1. If possible, especially in a large group setting, restate the comment in a way that is less damaging to your position. For example, assume you are a manager asked by the company president to encourage empowerment among employees. You’ve called together the whole department and have made a convincing case, you feel, for the importance of empowered actions and the benefits that will accrue to individuals, teams, and to the organization itself.

Someone in the back of the room raises her hand and loudly declares, “This just sounds like another management ploy to get us to work harder without rewarding us for our efforts.”

If you re-state her viewpoint verbatim you will be reinforcing its negativity. But, with a slight twist, you can still capture her concern and yet present it in a more positive light. Here’s one thing you might say. (You will need to say it quickly before the person jumps up to contradict you. Move right into the explanation of why the concern is unfounded.)

“Tamara is worried that empowerment could mean working harder without being rewarded for doing so. It’s a legitimate concern, but let me tell you why it shouldn’t worry you. First of all, empowerment is not mandatory. If you don’t want to be empowered, no one will force you to be. Secondly, what often happens is that empowered employees can actually reduce their workload. For example, if you feel there is duplication in some of the record-keeping you have to do, you should be able to point this out to your supervisor and with her approval, eliminate the unnecessary paperwork.”

2. It often helps, when an objection is raised, to mentally convert that comment to a question so you can address it with reasons and not emotions. In a meeting, for example, you may be suggesting a particular course of action and the office curmudgeon might point out, “We tried that three years ago. It didn’t work then and it won’t work now.”

By translating that comment to a question–“Did it fail three years ago?”–you can quickly marshal your thoughts in reply to that question. Consequently, you might reply along these lines: “No, it didn’t really fail then. You might remember that Tonia Johnson had proposed this idea and had laid the initial groundwork for implementing it. Then, when she accepted the transfer to the European division, the whole project got put on a back burner because so much else was happening then. I think it merits examining it again. As a matter of fact, I just had an e-mail from Tonia. She’s using these concepts over there in Germany and has had some impressive results.”

3. When appropriate, turn the objection around, if only to stall long enough to gather your thoughts. So if someone objects to a point you’ve made, firmly but diplomatically, you could challenge the person’s assumption. Your turn-the-tables question might be, “Leslie, I appreciate your concern. I’m wondering if you’ve come across any data that would back it up.”

If she says no, she is, in effect, weakening her own position. If she says yes, you can ask her to share the data she has acquired.

4. Anticipate objections and have answers ready in advance. At least a week prior to meeting with those you need to influence, sit down with a trusted friend or colleague. State what you will say sentence by sentence, while sentence by sentence your partner offers an objection or negative comment for you to overcome. True, you cannot prepare for every possible eventuality, but having anticipated the worse and made provisions for it, you will definitely pump up your self-confidence before and during the presentation.

5. Involve others. Sometimes an objection is really the unmasking of a private fear or the seizing of an opportunity to grind an axe in public. In such cases, it may help to ask the other members of the audience how they feel about the objection. Chances are, few hands will go up in support of it, thus affording you the chance to minimize the negative impact of it. On the other hand, if you find there is serious resistance to your proposal, you will have to re-think its worth.

6. Recognize that some issues are too broad to merit investigation at the present moment. While it is not likely, it is possible that you have overlooked a critical aspect that could impinge upon the success of your proposal. A statistically equipped opponent of the plan might attempt to sway others by citing figures you have not seen. Rather than allow such one-upsmanship to continue, assert that you need time to review the figures. Ask the person to meet with you at a later time, continue your presentation, and assure your audience you will update them on the information that has just recently come your way.

7. Employ humor, even if it means repeating a memorized example. This Yogi Berra classic can be adapted, for example, to virtually any situation in which you are coming under attack. Your reply to a criticism or objection might sound like this: “You comment reminds me of a conversation between Yogi Berra and Mrs. Berra. She came in the house one day and when he asked where she’d been, she replied, “I just went to see Dr. Zhivago.”

Alarmed, Yogi demanded to know, ‘What’s wrong with you now?’ Clearly, he knew the world of baseball but was not familiar with other forms of popular entertainment. Sometimes, because we are so consumed with the requirements of our own work, we don’t have time to know what’s happening in other worlds. My research on this proposal convinces me it’s working out there and I’d appreciate the chance to share just a few more figures with you to illustrate how well I think it will work in here.”

8. Let the past prepare you for the future. On occasion, a member of your audience may get so carried away with her own war story that valuable time is wasted. (Additionally, such stories usually move an audience off the track and thus derail the persuasive points you may have made to this point.) If you have ever had that happen to you, you don’t want it to happen again.

One method that invites input, but only the most succinct and relevant input, is a simple timing device that has a shrill sound. Announce before the question-and-answer period begins that you anticipate considerable input and so in fairness to all members, you will set your timer for exactly two minutes. And when it goes off, the person (who will not want to compete with such a sound) will be asked to sit down so the discussion can continue with other points of view.

9. Don’t overlook the power of anecdotes. You can weave them into your actual presentation and then again into your spontaneous remarks as you handle objections. The stories need not be funny or fabricated. In fact, the more poignant they are, they more they strike a common chord, the more likely are they to be remembered and you to be believed.

10. Cite a higher authority or precedent. People are usually influenced by someone who is nationally recognized and respected. (Oprah speaks; the nation reads.) Save some of the power in your argumentative arsenal for the question-and-answer period, when you can overcome objections by referring to an endorsement by a well-respected figure (“Our CEO has asked me to share these details with you”) or to a comparable project being successfully executed elsewhere.

11. Leadership has been described as a liberation of competence. Recognize that objectors probably have a great deal of competence you can tap into in support of your project. When apathy reigns, you will not hear objections. By contrast, when people are concerned enough to discuss your plan, they are giving it some serious thought. It may be that a given objection impresses you with the depth or clarity it reflects. By extension, the objector is probably someone who has given considerable thought to this whole arena and so would no doubt be a good person to have on your team (no matter how hostile her objection may seem at first).

12. Go out on a verbal limb. If you are supremely confident about the worth of your idea, you can offer assurances that represent an iron-clad guarantee for your influencee. To illustrate, we know one consultant who is so confident of the merit of his seminars that he makes this proposal, “If the evaluations do not average 4.5 out of 5, then you do not have to pay me.”

If you have too much to risk to make such an offer, however, you can go out on a different kind of verbal limb by stating an outrageous opinion instead of an outrageous offer. Tom Peters, for example, is known for such remarks: “Every organization should have at least one weirdo on staff.” Or, “If you have gone a whole week without being disobedient, you are doing your organization and yourself a disservice.” Of course, you can always make an informal promise such as, “If this doesn’t work, I’ll bring doughnuts to the staff meeting for a whole year!”

Dr. Marlene Caroselli (www.saatchionline.com/LainaCelano), is an author, keynoter, and corporate trainer. She has published over 60 books, including Jesus, Jonas, and Janus: The Leadership Triumvirate, from which this article is excerpted, and Principled Persuasion, named a Director’s Choice by Doubleday Book Club.

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