Want to speak like a powerful activist? Adopt these 4 tips

by | May 2, 2018 | Blog | 0 comments

Activists by definition advocate vigorously for their causes.

Those who speak regularly take their responsibilities literally. The word advocate comes from the Latin “advocare” – “adding” their “voice.”

Speaking out doesn’t always mean speaking well though.

So when I heard three extremely eloquent activists share their powerful stories over an 18-hour period at the Planned Parenthood national conference last week, I took notice.

Especially inspiring were the two young women (age 33 and 18) for whom English is their second language.

All three used four communication patterns that effective CEO activists also follow. Quantified Communications, the specialized firm that helps executives, MBA students and others improve their communication through data science, identified these patterns in its illuminating white paper, CEO Activism: How Corporate Leaders Communicate When They Take Sides on Social Issues.

In the interest of full disclosure, I’ve been serving as an executive communications coach for this innovative firm since February. Quantified Communications uses its proprietary communication analytics platform and extensive benchmarking database to measure primarily spoken communication to predict how audiences will react to the speakers and their messages.

Quantified Communications’ results provide actionable insights to the executives, their communication teams and others.  We coaches interpret the measurements, identify the high impact development areas, and create actions plans to help improve communications. 

However, I was at the Planned Parenthood conference in a different capacity – as a Planned Parenthood consultant and volunteer, not as a Quantified Communications coach. So I wasn’t going to use Quantified Communications’ sophisticated analytics platform to analyze the talks.

Yet based on my expertise and experience, I observed with my eyes and ears the speakers doing the following:

  1. Focusing on the audience in front of them. All three used “you” and other inclusive language to engage us and make us feel that we were part of the message. For instance, Cecile Richards, who’s finishing up her 12-year stint as Planned Parenthood’s dynamic CEO and is author of the new book, Make Trouble: Standing Up, Speaking Out, and Finding the Courage to Lead, spoke about how those in the room as well as Planned Parenthood’s patients have helped her advocate for reproductive rights.
  1. Speaking passionately and personally from the heart. All three came across as very authentic. Cecile talked about the influence of her late mother, former Texas Governor Ann Richards, who died the first year Cecile started working at Planned Parenthood. Deja Foxx, who challenged her U.S. Senator Jeff Flake at a Town Hall meeting in Arizona about his plans to defund Planned Parenthood, explained how her life had changed in that moment. Now 18, Deja just graduated from high school and this fall will be attending Columbia University on a full scholarship, the first member of her family to go to college.
  1. Being clear. Deja, Cecile and Christina Jiménez, Executive Director and Co-founder of United We Dream who was receiving an award from Planned Parenthood for her work, used simple sentence structures and everyday language. Their messages were clear and easy to follow. Plus they sounded natural and sincere, because they were speaking, not reading a script or a teleprompter.
  1. Establishing trust. They also took ownership of their messages by using first person pronouns, primarily “I” and also “we,” especially in Christina’s case. They also  used active voice and avoided PUNG (probably, usually, normally and generally) words over more certain language. They established eye contact with us as well.

Granted, Cecile, Christina and Deja were all talking to supporters who are proud of them and their accomplishments. The three were surrounded by fans and didn’t have to worry about alienating us, which can be a concern for activist CEOs.

(When CEOs speak out and take sides on contentious issues they must be aware of how consumers and shareholders might react. That’s why when the most effective CEO activists talk about a social issue, they connect it to their company’s bottom line, based on the Quantified Communications analysis.)

The three amazing women did more than talk to us though. By combining these four communication elements with their courage, commitment and clarity of purpose, they inspired us. These advocates demonstrated the power of the spoken word.

Are you and your leaders using spoken words as powerfully as you could and should?


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