Leadership has moved on since the time of the Roman emperors and nowadays leaders need to be able to rely on their communication skills to influence others to ensure that goals are met. A few years ago I published a blog article He wants Subjects, Verbs and Objects about an interview with the then CEO of Delta Airlines. He was lamenting that people get used to presenting in bullet points and lose the ability to formulate complete sentences. I’d like to share a couple of powerful strategies to inject complete sentences — and ideas — into your presentations.
The Beyond Bullet Points approach to developing presentations provides a natural safeguard against incompleteness – each slide contains one (and only one) sentence, with a subject, a verb and an object. The inability to formulate a coherent sentence is sometimes linked to the inability to formulate a coherent thought. BPP, which is based on the classical Rule of Three for constructing arguments, also encourages coherent thinking. This whole approach reminds me how we were taught to write essays and prepare ourselves for debates when I was in high school.
Unfortunately, coherent thinking no longer suffices. Since readers or listeners have so many calls on their time, it is increasingly important to bring across what you say in an interesting manner. Scientists and engineers tend to use a lot of abstract words and in many cases rely on a small selection of verbs when communicating. (In German, most scientists seem to just need 7 verbs to get through the day.) From some training I took with Dario Nardi last year, I learned that a small portion of the brain in the neo-cortex is involved in processing these abstract concepts (Regions F4 (The Expert Classifier) and T6 (The Purposeful Futurist)). Much more of the brain, however, responds with interest to a wide variety of verbs. Thank you, Maja Storch and Frank Krause, for hammering this home to me.
Combining these two insights together leads to the simple idea: reduce your reliance on abstract nouns and enrich your verb vocabulary. This is easier to practice in writing, e.g. e-mails, memos, articles and slides, than in day-to-day speech. It brings big benefits to your writing. Indeed, once you get comfortable writing like this, you’ll notice how your spoken word changes.
Here’s a first step to get you started: inside most abstract nouns is a verb screaming to be let out! Look for any words ending in –tion or –ation in your writing and ask yourself, which could usefully be replaced by the corresponding verb? For example, instead of “making a presentation”, simply “present”, or instead of “conducting a filtration”, simply “filtrate”.
Word choice is important in leadership: take care of your words and they will take care of you. This simple change will help you to engage your audience more readily. I’d love to hear difference you notice when you shift from abstract nouns to verbs.