Leaders can sometimes communicate more without words than with them. What matters is poise and conviction.
That came to mind as I watched Kevin Bacon’s performance in Taking Chance, an HBO movie based upon Lt. Col. Mike Strobl’s moving account of escorting a slain Marine, Lance Corporal Chase Phelps, to his final resting place in Wyoming. While Bacon has the lead role, it seems he has no more than 10 pages of dialogue to deliver and most of that in one to two sentences at a time. Without the benefit of words we see the compassion he bears for the young Marine, the conflict he undergoes because he is not in combat himself, and the strong bond for service he carries.
What Bacon’s performance reminds us is that a leader need not always use words to convey meaning; non-verbal cues often say more than words can ever do. Unfortunately, too often non-verbal cues are displayed to the wrong effect, that is, to display distraction, disregard or even distaste. Those in charge, especially those in very senior positions, must be careful not only with their words but with their body language. Here are some suggestions.
Relax your facial muscles. I once worked with a talented engineer who had a real affinity for teaching others; it was something he enjoyed doing. But since he was new to his firm, people didn’t know him and when they saw him they would see him in his office with his face scrunched up and seeming very intense. His body language said, “Stay away!” In reality he was deep in concentration but with people he could be engaging. He worked on reminding himself to relax his facial muscles. When he did so, he seemed more approachable, and as such was able to connect better with his new colleagues. (Yes, you can practice relaxing your facial muscles by looking in a mirror. This is not vanity.)
Without a trace of irony, the CEO looks straight at the young Ph.D. analyst and says, “Speak as you might to a young child, or a golden retriever. It wasn’t brains that got me here, I assure you.”
That memorable line is from the movie Margin Call, the fictionalized story of the collapse of a Wall Street investment company. The CEO (played by Jeremy Irons) is not being facetious; his tone and manner (seen here on YouTube) reflects exactly what many senior executives want: simple explanations, not in the weeds details. Sadly too many rising executives fail to understand their bosses’ desire quick explanations. And so when they present to their higher ups they believe it is their duty or even their obligation to go on long, too long.
This disconnect arises for one or more of the following reasons: one, they believe they need to show what they know and prove it to everyone; two, they fail to realize that senior managers do not want to know how the sausage is made only that is available; and three, they believe in the law of plenty – if one fact is good; three are better.
You can sum up these failings with a simple statement: when presenting to a senior executive your job is to inform not educate. Executives want information so they can make up their own minds; they don’t need explanations that will be perceived as extraneous and irrelevant. And, very important, they do not want interpretation.