“Let me explain,” said Frank Underwood, the fictional US president of the House of Cards TV series, “are the three most deadly words in politics.” His flesh-and-blood predecessor, Ronald Reagan, put it even more succinctly: “If you’re explaining, you’re losing.”
It’s good advice those in business should also heed, for too much of what is known as leadership communications is really rational explanation repackaged as narrative. Those dull supporting cast members known as key messages, proof points, rebuttals and rational debate can end arguments – but they can never set armies marching.
Instead, real leaders work by showing us what they’re expecting from us (mimesis) – not by telling us what’s going on (diagesis). Explaining can win over the head, but seldom the heart. No explanation was ever a call to action. The truth is that while we can build informed consent by explaining issues, we can’t build rapport or win any large-scale engagement this way.
Our age has brought a great commoditisation of the communications function in business, corporate and public life, using explanation as the lowest common denominator. But emotional intelligence tells us facts can’t speak for themselves: only people can.
So it’s time to break through the “let me explain” barrier.
This means recognising leadership calls for rather different communications attributes. Persuasively lowering barriers of mistrust to create ‘followership’ is seldom about presenting facts, and instead about character and charisma. The test of a leader’s charisma is to persuade people to do things or hold views they would not otherwise have – all without them fully perceiving the change.
Reagan – let’s not forget he was known as ‘The Great Communicator’ – didn’t explain much. In his 1984 “Shining City upon a Hill” Republican Party nomination speech, he didn’t explain why America should pivot towards the vision of John Winthrop, an obscure 17th century Puritan from Boston who coined the phrase. But pivot America surely did.
Nor did Reagan explain that he had stolen the Winthrop reference from a 1961 speech by John F. Kennedy, one of recent history’s greatest “non-explainers.” Kennedy’s chiselled utterances – “Ich bin ein Berliner,” or “Our goal is not the victory of might, but the vindication of right” – worked their uncanny persuasion through symbolism, not through argument or explanation. And in 1962 he changed the course of human history without bothering to explain why:
“But why, some say, the Moon? Why choose this as our goal? …. We choose to go to the Moon! … We choose to go to the Moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard; because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one we intend to win …”
Coincidence or not, the generation of business leaders who are positioning themselves to inherit at least some threads of Kennedy’s star-spangled mantle, thanks to the privatisation of space exploration, aren’t great explainers either.
Look at what Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos, Paul Allen and Sir Richard Branson have to say about their separate reasons for financing hugely risky and costly vehicles such as the SpaceX, Falcon, Blue Origin or Virgin Galactic. Perhaps the vast personal fortunes they’re wagering in space exempt them from explaining to troublesome shareholders. Yet they still don’t say very much at all about the ‘why’ of space entrepreneurship. Which is curious because all are great and prolific communicators.
Instead, they let the dream sell itself. Musk focuses on the goal of establishing human colonies on Mars by 2040. Branson wants every passenger to have a window seat. Bezos uses a Latin motto: Gradatim Ferociter, or “step-by-step, ferociously.”
In each of these leadership cases, there’s a set of valuable insights. When it comes to persuasive power, then character attributes and the building of rapport will outrank all the facts gathered into bulky folders by interns in the communications department. Charisma will provide an embattled executive with more answers than the weightiest Q&A briefing document.
Everyone has at least some of these skills. Yet in many cases they need to be revealed after a lifetime of bad communication habits. The starting point is to visualise, map and measure our softer communication skills. Then we can start managing them. There is a way to do this. The image at the top of this article is one real example of a persuasive communications skills map generated by completing a simple online self-assessment. You can find full details of our robust new methodology and how it will help you to reveal and hone your own skills, on our website www.communicatecharisma.com
So next time your find yourself raising a finger while your lips form those familiar words “let me explain;” just stop yourself right there.
(Originally published on LinkedIn Oct 24, 2015)