I recently had the opportunity to sit down with international leadership authority Chris Westfall, author of the new book Leadership Language: Using Authentic Communication to Drive Results. In it, Westfall compiles advice given to Fortune 100 companies, high-growth entrepreneurs, and Shark Tank startups on how to master authentic, compelling communication.
We spoke at length about the hidden power that’s packed within the language we use, why the simplest message is always the strongest, and a new way to look at client needs by considering who’s sitting in the “empty chair.” Here is some of our conversation.
In your book, you explain that language—our words and actions—will either drive results into the stratosphere, or into a ditch. Is language truly that powerful?
Language is the way we share and derive meaning—so sharing our ideas effectively relies on our ability to communicate. Anything you want to create for yourself requires effective communication: if you want to get an investor, get a raise, get a job, or get a date, you have to consider the words you choose. And you need to select the words that will help you most.
In Leadership Language, I show how to connect with your authentic story and deliver the words—and actions—that will bring your ideas to life, help you walk the talk, and keep you out of that ditch. Since there are two miles of ditch for every one mile of road, it makes sense to concentrate on making your language as powerful as possible.
Why do we tend to overcomplicate the message we’re trying to deliver?
When you put together a presentation, is it jam-packed with details? Have you filled every corner of every PowerPoint slide? If you’re nodding your head with a “yes,” have you ever asked yourself why? Are you trying to impress your audience? Are you trying to prove your expertise? Have you not considered that the simplest message is the strongest?
Einstein said that if you can’t explain something simply, you don’t really understand it. For my clients, and for the leaders I’m talking to in my book, I have to assume there is a certain level of expertise. I assume that you really do understand your subject on multiple levels, both simple and complex. But instead of focusing on your knowledge and skills, which shows up in the density of those PowerPoint slides, what happens if you shift your attention to the thing that matters most: your audience.
If your audience is impressed but confused when your presentation is done, your intellectual horsepower just shut down your engine. A simple message creates an understanding, and a connection, that revs up your audience.
You advise leaders that to get to something new, they should start with something known. What’s an example?
Consider any change initiative: the introduction of a new software platform. Launching a new product. Selling your house, or gaining a new investor. Where do all of these changes start? They begin with where you are at now. The frame of reference is always what’s known.
When clients come to me, wanting to appear on Shark Tank, and they say, “I’ve got a business idea that no one has ever heard of before,” I immediately stop the conversation. Because even the most innovative technology or advancement exists within the context of what’s going on right now. “Now” becomes a launching pad to something new.
You encourage leaders to consider who’s sitting in the “empty chair.” What does this chair represent?
The empty chair is a seat at the table, metaphorically, for someone who is not in the room but will be directly and dramatically impacted by the change you propose. The empty chair is a seat at the table for the third-grade student who’s going to read a history textbook next year. She’s not in the room when teachers and school administrators make the decision to purchase that textbook; she can’t even advocate for her position on the subject.
Yet, that history book is the way she is going to come to understand our world. The empty chair is a seat at the table for the patient who’s going to go through an MRI machine. She’s not in the room when doctors and hospital administrators decide on this seven-figure investment, and yet she’s directly and dramatically impacted when it’s time for treatment.
If the person you wish to influence is important to you, it can be useful to think of them as your most important person. And it’s even more useful to consider the people that they care about. In this context, your most important person’s most important person sits in the empty chair. This phrasing is a little clunky, so let me reframe it: your customer’s customer sits in the empty chair. I explain this concept more in this video; it’s an essential practice every leader should follow.
How can leaders use “you” language to create engagement?
“You” language helps leaders avoid the common trap of self-involvement, or, in other words, making every conversation about yourself. No one cares about your stories or interests. But people care when you focus on them. When you use “you” language, it helps you to get out of your own head, and it lets your audience know they matter most. You can achieve this by incorporating introductory “you” prompts, such as:
- Have you ever noticed…
- You know how…
- You know that feeling when…
- Doesn’t it seem [to you] like…
These short phrases introduce common ideas, called high concepts, that help build engagement. “You” language helps leaders start conversations with what the audience is thinking, whether that audience is your team, your local Chamber of Commerce, your investor, or your spouse. When you create a common bond—and connect to what matters most to your audience—you’ll have a much better chance of reaching your goals and creating uncommon results.