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Effective Communication - 6 June 2013

Cicero, from ancient Rome, and Demosthenes, from ancient Greece, are two of history’s most powerful orators. “A home without books is a body without soul,” said Cicero, while Demosthenes is famous for saying that “all speech is vain and empty unless it be accompanied by action”.

Renowned for their eloquence and mastery of words, they’ve been hailed throughout history for being so brilliant that the only competitors they had in the field of oratory were each other. There was, however, one key point of distinction.

It’s recorded that whenever Cicero addressed audiences, they would applaud and praise him for his speaking abilities. But, when Demosthenes presented, his audiences were compelled to take up arms to bravely fight against the enemy. The difference is that people admired Cicero because of how well he spoke, but people admired Demosthenes for how well he persuaded – and that’s an important consideration for any leader communicating in the workplace.


The ultimate objective of communication is to persuade people to follow your instruction, or to accept your vision, or to think and act differently in some way. That’s unlikely to happen if all they do is sit back and admire how smoothly you were able to articulate it. But it’s far more likely to occur if you’re able to persuade them by stirring up some kind of positive emotion that inspires them to pay attention and then act.

A series of studies from the University of Southern California has produced four main steps to persuasive communication in the workplace:

Establish credibility: In order to influence your employees, they must perceive you as being knowledgeable and as someone they can trust. Often, this has a lot to do with the quality of your relationships and their perceptions of the decisions you’ve made in the past.

Find common ground: Clarify the mutual benefits arising from what you want employees to do. It helps to discover in advance the issues of highest priority to them so that you can explain how your proposal will alleviate their angst.

Use evidence: Strengthen your point by using language that engages their preferred style of communication. That means incorporating stories, metaphors, statistics, case studies, and other examples to which your employees can relate.

Make a connection: Most employees don’t react to announcements rationally; they react emotionally. That’s why it’s essential to identify their underlying emotions, and then adjust your words and tone to accommodate how they’re feeling.

And then, really, it’s all about practicing. When Demosthenes decided he wanted to be a public speaker, he had a weak voice characterised by stuttering and stammering. Audiences laughed at him, ridiculing his ambition. To cure himself, he practiced speaking with pebbles in his mouth, he strengthened his voice by reciting poetry while running up a hill, and he worked on his posture by rehearsing with a sword balancing on his shoulder.

Because, to influence others, sometimes you have to begin by influencing yourself.


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