by Steve Adubato, PhD
Colin Powell is clearly one of the greatest communicators of our time. That's not by accident. General Powell has made a commitment to be an effective and persuasive public speaker. Much of the success that the General has achieved in public life and most recently in business, is because of his superior communication skills. He is a much sought after and very highly paid motivational speaker.
Recently, I had the chance to speak with General Powell about how he approaches a presentation or a speech. The one thing I concluded after that interview is that like so many other powerful communicators, Colin Powell speaks from the heart. It is his passion, enthusiasm and personal touch that causes so many Americans to wish that he were running for president.
A few months back, the General gave a speech before the nurses who served in Vietnam. It was in connection with a Vietnam Women's Memorial event. Here's what he said to them:
"How much of your heart did you leave there? How often were you the mother for a kid asking for mom in the last few seconds of his life? How many 19-year-old sons did you lose? I didn't realize, although I should have, what a burden you carried. I didn't realize how much your sacrifice equaled and even exceeded that of the men. I didn't realize how much we owed to you then, and how much we should have thanked you, recognized you and comforted you since then."
I asked General Powell how he came to deliver these eloquent and gut-wrenching words. He told me that his speechwriters gave him "some good drafts, but nothing seemed to click." He thought the women would be "expecting something more than that." To try to figure out what that was, he read poems written by the women who served in Vietnam that told of their horrible experiences. It was only then that he put himself in a frame of mind to connect with these women.
I asked him how he gets in touch with his audience. He told me that he tries to put himself in the place of his audience so that he can bond with them and understand their culture, their aspirations and their fears. He emphasized the importance of not just lecturing to the audience, but speaking with them.
Powell also told me that you don't have to be the slickest, most accomplished public speaker to be effective; "If people see that you are confident in what you're doing, that you're prepared to lead them and lead them well, whether you can articulate that in the best way through speaking becomes secondary…It's the ability to connect with them at a gut level that matters most."
There is a real lesson to be learned from Colin Powell. First, that unlike what many people believe, not all great speakers are born but rather they make a commitment to excellence and get trained to be the best they can be. Further, forget the charts and graphs. Stop being obsessed with PowerPoint slides. They have their place and sometimes they can enhance what you're saying. But at the core, great communicators must learn to speak from the heart. For if they don't, they will never truly connect with their audience and, after all, isn't connecting with other people what communication is all about? Who do you know that speaks from the heart? Write to me and let me know.