Tools You Can Use


The Language of Leadership

“Great leaders cause you to move to action. They force you to think.” 

North Carolina Representative Craig Horn (R), speaking at NCSL’s Symposium for Emerging Leaders, said to make your presentation shine, follow Winston Churchill’s “Simple, But Not Easy, Rules of Communication.”

  • Begin Strongly
  • Focus the Message
  • Paint a Picture in the Mind
  • Talk to Your Audience, Not at Them
  • End with Emotion

Churchill knew that with the right words, leaders have “more power than a great king,” said Horn, chairman of the Churchill Society of North Carolina and a past board member and treasurer of The Churchill Centre and the International Churchill Society. “The language of leadership is full of wit and wisdom. Our job is to give our constituents a reason to do something—to move them into action.”

The keys in presentation, Horn said, are to believe in what you are talking about and to express sincerity. The speech or presentation’s message should be easily understood, so that the audience can reduce to one good sentence.

Churchill was described as someone who mobilized the English language and set it into battle, Horn said. The statesman had to work hard to be a great communicator, overcoming a lisp and a doctor who recommended the young boy to avoid any line of work that required speaking.

He said there is no need to use big words. “Banish the bureaucratic and the banal.”

And, he said, choose active words, not passive ones.

The session, called “Winston Churchill’s Language of Leadership,” revealed much about the great leader, including his prolific writing—he wrote more than 50 books. He served in five conflicts, telling his listeners that, "There is no greater exhilarating feeling than to be shot at with no result.” Churchill also was the only person to be in a senior leadership position in both World Wars, Horn said.

Good Media Relations

The media can be pricklier than a cactus, but if you keep these five points in mind and you’ll find your media relations are a snap:

  • Treat your conversation as if you have a national audience watching. Every word you say could be used in the story, so select words appropriately. Avoid sarcasm and be straightforward.
  • Say the most important items first. Reporters are on deadline, too. Respect their time and try to get the critical information at the top of your answer. Otherwise, they may need to move on to the next question before you make your point.
  • Pay attention to the reporter’s question and pause slightly before answering. Accuracy is more important than speed, so take your time because you won’t get a chance to do it over.
  • Think in terms of a sound bite. Try to think of a phrase in 30 words or less that sums up the situation. Use metaphors and words that can easily paint a picture, or tie in with a current news event, movie or sports analogy.
  • Build your relationships off camera. Don’t wait for the TV lights to come on or for the reporter’s notepad to come out before you talk with a reporter. Stop by the press offices, invite a reporter to lunch or call them with a news tip that doesn’t involve you. As in any industry, better communication leads to better relationships.

Boston Mayor Thomas Menino secured a prominent article with The New York Times Magazine in August. Things went well in the question-and-answer format until he was asked what other major U.S. city would he would live if his hometown were not an option. After expressing his appreciation for Boston, he mentioned Baltimore and Detroit as intriguing cities. The follow-up question ignited a firestorm.

Q. What would you do in Detroit?

A. I’d blow up the place and start all over. No, seriously, when it takes a police officer 90 minutes to answer a call, there’s something wrong with the system. Forty percent of the streetlights are out, most of the buildings are boarded up. Why? Inaction, that’s the problem — leadership.

Dave Bing, mayor of Detroit, understandably took issue with Menino’s response, rightfully pointing out that after the Boston Marathon tragedy, it was inexcusable to talk about bombing in another city. He challenged the Boston mayor’s statistics, generating headlines across the nation. Menino rightfully retreated and apologized.

For many elected officials in the public sector, this is an example of the dangers of talking to the media. They believe talking to a reporter is akin to hugging a cactus.

Our system of democracy, however, demands accessibility and accountability to public officials. Since Thomas Jefferson’s famous statement that he would rather have newspapers without a government than a government without newspapers, the media has been an important part of the democratic process.

Here are three important steps in how to learn to hug the cactus.

Understand the Cactus

The landscape for the official-reporter relationship is undergoing tremendous change.

First, public trust in government has sunk to an all-time low. Nationally, according to the Pew Research Center, trust has shrunk from a 73 percent approval rating in 1958 to a 19 percent approval rating today. Once it fell below 60 percent in the 1960s, it has neared that level only once, after the 9-11 attacks.

Against that backdrop, in recent years the traditional news media has been under tremendous financial stress and the job market for journalists has shrunk. Most state capitols have seen the number of full-time reporters fall to historic lows over the last two decades.

Television news, particular local television, still remains the biggest source where people get their news, according to Pew. While newspapers and radio stations continue to have declining audiences, more people are getting their news online and from other digital sources.

Interestingly, there have been major investments in news media operations that may signal a revival, or perhaps a significant change in operations. Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos recently purchased the Washington Post for $250 million. Last year, Warren Buffet spent $142 million to purchase 63 daily and weekly newspapers.

Approach the Cactus

In order to hug the cactus, one needs to be prepared and understand what the cactus likes.

In most cases, the media likes short answers that sum up an issue, commonly referred to as sound bites. Back in 1968, the average sound bite given a presidential candidate on the evening news was 43 second long. By 2008, that shrunk to just under 8 seconds. In other words, the news media likes powerful statements wrapped up in about 30 words.

An interview, however, could be five minutes long, or in the case of a major newspaper or magazine article, an hour or more. Sometimes, they are just looking for the sound bite, other times a sound bite and details.

Every public servant needs to have key messages ready to go for those interviews where the sound bite is critical. But, for those follow up questions, there needs to be a second level of answers, where the official can provide around three supporting points to back up the sound bite. And, if the reporter needs details, then having data and statistics to back up those points are important to have.

This three-tier structure helps guide responses to reporters’ questions. Rather than jumping into details, provide reporters with a big picture answer and let the follow-up questions be about the details.

Understand the rules the media operates under. As a subject, you have the ability to set certain ground rules as knowing what an interview is about, knowing the format, setting up a mutually convenient time to set up the interview and to correct misstatements. However, you are not allowed to know the questions in advance, change your quotes, edit the story or expect that your view will be the only one represented in the story.

And, most important, remember that anything that comes out of your mouth is fair game. Saying, “that is off the record” after you make the statement does not make a statement go away. Anything you do not want attributed to you must be specifically agreed to with the reporter in advance.

Hug the Cactus

How do you hug a cactus? Very carefully.

Knowing the ground rules and understanding how the cactus operates is critical to finding that sweet spot.

What was the Boston mayor’s mistake in his interview with The New York Times magazine? He didn’t think about the implications of his answer. He was smart to say he couldn’t imagine living anywhere but Boston and could even be forgiven for mentioning other cities.

However, as much as he believed his type of leadership would be useful in Detroit, he momentarily blanked on what the reaction would be to his statements. He jumped straight to the details of what he thought the problem was, rather than starting at the top.

And finally, remember those five points!