Administration & Leadership

Cultivating Your Speaking Authority

Taking a cue from what he learned studying music, a former principal shows how school leaders can be effective speakers by connecting with their audience.

March 20, 2024
SDI Productions / iStock

Principals routinely speak to diverse types and sizes of audiences—their staff, parent and community groups, students, media groups, fellow administrators, and others. The one-on-one conference, face-to-face with an angry parent who thinks their child has been wronged, may be the toughest. In that situation, you may choose and use words correctly, but if your appearance and demeanor don’t support the delivery of your words, your communication will fail.

Through all my preparatory classes for the principalship, I don’t recall ever having the opportunity to gain experience about the intricacies and nuances of speaking in various professional settings, in public and behind closed doors. However, my training for both my bachelor and master of music degrees did include preparation for speaking in front of audiences. Just like most everything else we did as aspiring musicians, we were expected to practice what we were taught and then “practice” in front of others before moving on into the professional world.

Tips from Music Training 

That type of training can be advantageous for all principals. Besides instructing about notes, rhythms, and nuances of musical expression, my music teachers taught lessons about performing in public—practical lessons and advice that I utilized every day during my service in the principalship.

We were expected to master the intricacies of etiquette and stage presence. We talked about personal grooming and proper dress for differing types of performance. Those discussions included how to style our hair, control the glare on eyeglasses, and choose colors of clothing and shoes—even the types of soles on our shoes so as not to make distracting noise onstage. Those tips were wrapped within a more important discussion about how to enter the stage while showing confidence with a smile and acknowledging the audience.

My professors were shaping a vision of what today is called “executive presence.” Executive presence comprises seven traits: composure, connection, charisma, confidence, credibility, clarity, and conciseness. You need to choose the words others will hear you say wisely and effectively. But you must also deliver those words skillfully so that people see that you are authentic, sincere, and empathetic.

For example, when you need to speak in front of a large group of parents, focus on the following tips.

7 Elements of Executive Presence

Composure: Develop the ability to control and manage your emotions. If others can see your nervousness, that—and not your words—becomes their focus. Remember the adage, never let them see you sweat. You develop composure through practice. The more experience you can acquire, the more relaxed you will appear. Don’t shy away from opportunities to speak in public.

Connection: Your eyes help you connect. Make sure you look at all parts of the room. Everyone needs to sense that you are speaking directly to them. Smile as much as you can, and use humor appropriately when possible.

Charisma: People with a magnetic personality seem to possess an ability to draw others to them. That happens because they have advanced listening skills and an ability to stay in the moment. Individuals in an audience sense that you are speaking directly to and are solely focused on them. Block anything out of your mind that might be a distraction.

Confidence: Confidence is visually displayed through good posture, focused eyes, and appropriate facial expressions and hand gestures that match your words. Additionally, your voice must have good pitch, volume, and pace. Use a microphone when possible, so as not to strain your voice. Dress professionally. In my training, we were taught to “Look first-class, think first-class, and act first-class.”

Credibility: Listen to people speak on television. The use of filler language such as “um,” “uh,” and “so” (fillers or verbal graffiti) is distracting and unnecessary. Likewise, there are phrases that are minimizers, such as “just,” “sort of,” and “this may not be a good idea but…” Avoid these. When you speak without “ums” and “uhs,” you will sound credible, confident, and competent. Your audiences will see the conviction behind your words.

Clarity: In music school, we were taught as teachers to state three points and move into the practical details of a rehearsal. If people cannot understand your choice of words, or if your delivery (audible and visual) is monotone, people will tune out. You must practice articulation to perform it.

Conciseness: You must learn what to say, when to say it, and how to say it. Make your point(s), clarify, restate again by uniquely emphasizing critical points, then wrap up. Remember Abraham Lincoln’s success with his Gettysburg Address, compared with Edward Everett’s two-hour oratory?

Principals can improve their executive presence. It requires personal reflection, deliberate practice, and coaching. Then, when you step onto the stage, people will take notice—and listen.

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