How to Use the Power of Language to Lead, Inspire, and Engage

How to Use the Power of Language to Lead, Inspire, and Engage

It's not about what you want to say—it's about knowing what your audience wants and needs to hear, and those are two distinct things.

Bill Fox

Joel Schwartzberg: Public Speaking Coach, Speechwriter, and Presenter at joelschwartzberg.net. Author of The Language of Leadership and Get to the Point!


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‌How can we create workplaces where every voice matters, everyone thrives and finds meaning, and change and innovation happen naturally?

‌‌Joel: Creating a workplace where opinions are not only fostered but respected and encouraged starts with one word: Listening.

Leaders need to listen to their people, teams, partners, and collaborators to understand where that partner is coming from and what they want and need to know.

It sometimes helps for leaders to confirm that understanding back to the other person, which reinforces the leader’s understanding and demonstrates appreciation and interest. If leaders want to encourage and advance their teams — whether that's innovation or expansion — they need to recognize they're doing it as part of a team.

Having honest exchanges with staff also helps demonstrate that the leader is among the team, not above the team, which is a critical position to both hold and to convey to maintain inspiration and productive engagement.

What does it take to get an employee's full attention and best performance?

Joel: It starts with understanding what that employee wants and needs to know, and those are two separate things. The team wants to know something they're probably already aware of but need to hear more of it. That includes expressions like appreciation, recognition, and clarification. What they need to know may be something they don't know yet, but they must know, like organizational news and changes. Leaders need to understand their teams’ wants and needs clearly to engage and inspire them.

Leaders make a mistake if the first question they ponder when they create communication is what do I want to say or what do I need to say? Because that's all about them. That's not even connecting to what the audience wants and needs to know. So that's the wrong question.

The right question is, what does my audience want to need to know?

Establish that understanding with the help of an executive team or people in HR, then work backward. Reverse engineer it to reach that impact, including all the communication milestones on the way there.

Bill: That's an interesting point, Joel. Was there something that helped you see that distinction?

I benefit from working for a national nonprofit and my previous jobs where I don't just coach these things. I experienced them. I experience not only successes but the failures. I experience tactics that work and new tactics that we throw against the wall that don't work. Everything I put into my books and my training is something I've exercised in real-time with a real CEO and an actual situation, whether there was a crisis or just a town hall address.

You could throw a rock and hit a speaking consultant who will tell you to focus on the audience, not on yourself.

This idea of the difference between wanting and needing to know came about when I was crafting precise communications and trying to match them. And I realized two things are going on here, and they need to be considered independently.

Bill: That's an exciting position to be in, Joel, because as I read your book, The Language of Leadership, I was repeatedly asking myself, "How do you know that? How did you see that?"

I wrote that book in real-time. Even now, I'm creating an important annual address for a CEO, and I'm working with other people where many questions are coming up. What does he want to say? What does he need to say? What do they want to hear? What do they need to hear? What is too much information? And what is just enough? Is this merely informing? Or is this inspiring? Many questions help me focus on the tips and tactics I recommend.

What do people really lack and long for at work?

One thing people always long for they don't always lack, but maybe they don't hear it often enough is appreciation. It's one thing that should be in every leadership communication to a team, staff, or the entire organization.

“Thank you” is inspiring. It's motivating. It's saying, “I see you. I see your work, and most importantly, I see the impact of your work.” But that's also why it shouldn't end at “thank you.”

The most effective thanks and appreciation are specific: 'Thank you for your specific contribution, which resulted in this particular impact on our work, our protocols, our policy, or our programs.'

The more specific leaders are when they convey appreciation, the more impact they will have in motivating the people receiving that appreciation.

What is the most important question leaders should ask employees?

Joel: What are your challenges, and what did you learn from coping with those challenges? Not necessarily even assuming they overcame those challenges. Maybe those challenges were overwhelming, but there was still learning.

One tactic I've seen used often by leaders, very productively, is asking the question, 'What are the challenges you cope with?'

And even more importantly, “What did you learn from that experience that you can apply to the next challenge?” In this way, the leader is not only observing something that happened but making use of it. Whether that event was successful or terrible, we can apply a realization from it to enable success around the corner.

Bill: As you mentioned that question, I pictured myself sitting in my office and the CEO sitting down next to me and asking me that question. Is there anything you recommend a CEO or senior leader could do to make that person feel comfortable talking about his challenges and what he learned from them?

Joel: It goes back to listening, and I mean active listening. Not listening and thinking about what I will answer next, or thinking about the lunch you will have. But truly, paying attention to that person.

I think this idea of asking that person to convey the learning what they recommend moving forward is very empowering. There's a lot of trust in that employee. In the Language of Leadership,  I recommend phrases and communication approaches that help teams communicate their needs productively. For example, if a person comes to a leader and says, "Here's the status report." A great thing for the leader is to say, "Thank you. What do you recommend we do?  What should we do next?"

When a leader says that often, sooner or later, that team member will start saying, 'Here's the status report, and here's what I recommend.'

That's a leadership quality when you recommend or when you suggest and propose. That leadership quality can be fostered in anyone in the organization. It's a great way to show appreciation, respect, as well as support professional development.

What is the most important question employees should ask leaders?

Joel: Employees have the right to know and ask leaders, "Where are we going?" It doesn’t need to be those exact words. You could say, "Can you share with me some of the goals for the next five or ten years?" Or, "Can you share with me your vision for this department, next year in the coming year or the coming years?" A leader should have answers to these questions at the ready. They should have a vision in place because they are the ship's captain.

I sometimes use a metaphor of being on a boat that’s leaking water. Do you want the captain of the boat to describe the amount of water coming in and talk about the peril that the water will bring to the boat and its crew? Or do you want that leader to say, here's my vision for how we're going to get out of this mess and reach dry land?

What will also motivate employees is knowing that there's a roadmap. There's an ultimate impact, whether it's about saving lives or selling more Coca-Cola.‌‌We found in my organization that people are very inspired when they know where the car is going, what this will all mean, and how this will impact society in the future, especially if that leader brings along those people. Here's my vision. Here's our executive team's vision for the future. What do you think about that? What do you think will help get us there again? It's again demonstrating that the leader is among, not just above, the employees and that we have a unified mission.

What is the most important question we should ask ourselves?

Joel: The most important question someone should ask themselves is not what's on my to-do list today, but where is this all leading? What is the impact of my work on the organization or the company's goals? How will this ultimately impact people, whether customers or hospital patients? Because that road map helps employees understand their role in the big process and the big goal that the organization is trying to reach.

If you simply focus on today's to-do list, you see yourself as a cog in the wheel.

All right, I wake up. I punch in. I do five things. I go home. But even if I do all these things, how does that impact our goals? How does that impact our audience or our customers? Few things can be as fulfilling or as motivating as knowing the true impact of what your work leads to,

Some of the clients I work with, regardless of their place in the hierarchy, don't know the difference between managing a project and owning a project. Sometimes I say, “a worker sees tasks to be done, a manager sees responsibilities, and an owner sees opportunity.” An owner doesn't just see a checklist, saying, for example, “My work is done if I send this email.” An owner understands the impact of that email; and says, “If I don't get a response, I need to follow up because I’m responsible for that result and for the ultimate goal for this project. It's not just a list of tasks required to advance the project.

Ownership is critical, whether managers and leaders are trying to instill that in their people or stretching to become stronger project owners themselves.

I'm struck by your ability to get to the point in all your writing. What is it that you do, and how did you get started?

Joel: A funny story that you may or may not include is that when I was writing Get to the Point, the publisher said, this needs to be no more than about 15,000 words, which is pretty short for a book. And I said good because if I can make a point in 15,000 words, I'm like a dentist with bad teeth! I need to talk the talk and walk the walk!

My journey in public speaking began when I was in sixth grade. I was a competitive public speaker in middle school and continued in high school. This is something called forensics. Competitive public speaking usually involves debate, but also individual speeches and dramatic performance. Because I had so much experience, I was able to be very successful in college at the same thing. I was national champion in 1990, representing Emerson College.

But the result in all that was not so much the marble and plastic trophies, which were nice, but what happened later. When I began to interview for jobs, when I spoke to bosses, or eventually went to conferences, I was employing many of the things I learned in competition. Then I had this a ha! moment where I really wanted to give back. We all like to give back somehow, but the best way to give back is by sharing a special and effective ability you’ve realized and honed.

Around three years into my training, I had another a ha! moment. When I would ask my clients and students, "Tell me the point you're trying to make?" they would tell me the title of their speech. I would say, "Not the title, the point." Then they would give me a theme. "Well, it's kind of about this." I said, "Not the theme, the point. What are you arguing?" And they wouldn't know.

I learned moving forward that people either didn't know their point or would confuse their point with other things — the theme, a topic, a catchphrase, a notion, and sometimes a category.

You and I are not really talking about my books, but the capability of my books to help people make stronger points. Your podcast is not just about podcasting. It's about elevating people with insight that you successfully extract from your guests and your own experience. These are points, and we need to be making solid points.

Inspired and, frankly, excited by this experience, I adjusted my training to focus on what is your point? How can you sharpen your point? How do you champion that point? All that learning culminated in my book Get to the Point in 2017.

What is your book's key point?

Joel: Not to be repetitive but both of my books really make one key point and that if you don't know your point, you are rendered pointless. Both books are about ways to strengthen the point, sharpen the point, and champion the point.

If you don't know your point, you are rendered pointless.

It all starts with this one concept. You will ramble if you don't have a point because you don't have a road map. You don't know where you're going, and you don't know what you're trying to get across to your audience, which is less what they want and need to know.

And to be clear, some people think that just because someone is a senior vice president and they've been to many conferences and given keynote speeches, they won't ramble. But strong communications and public speaking is a skill, not a talent. It doesn't come magically with leadership experience or an impressive title on your business card. It comes with understanding the importance of having a point and knowing what your point is.

There are many books on leadership. What sets your book apart from all the others?

Joel: When I wrote the language of leadership, one of the reasons I felt it had value was because you could throw a paper airplane in a bookstore, and you'll hit a leadership book that tells you that you should be more empathic. You should listen more. You should be authentic. You need to inspire hope. You should be confident and decisive, but supportive and inspiring. Good stuff, but how do we come to know those qualities?

I would say about 80-90% of that conveyance is through communication—emails, speeches, videos, posts, blogs, internal podcasts, and other avenues.

That's when I decided to focus on ways leaders use those critical communication avenues and opportunities to engage and inspire.

The subtitle of my book is 'how to engage and inspire your team.'

I didn't pick those words randomly out of a thesaurus. I really think effective leadership, at its core,  is about these two things. Engaging and bringing people into the room and getting their attention, and inspiring them. This is what leaves me motivated to contribute and to succeed.

What prompted you to write the book?

Joel: In Get to the Point, it was realizing people didn't know their points or the value of a point. In The Language of Leadership, it's about focusing on the communication channels because that's the avenue through which teams and employees most understand and evaluate leadership.

What are the top 1 (2 or 3) takeaways you'd like readers to get from the book?

Joel: One is probably what you said, which is to know the power of communication, not just to inform, but to inspire, engage and create an understanding that inspires and engages.

Two is to know the value of a point and that you always need to have one in every communication.

The third thing I mentioned, but just to put some mustard on it, is this idea that it's not about what you want to say—it's about knowing what your audience wants and needs to hear and using that insight to construct a communication that truly moves them.


Utilizing the Language of Leadership starts where all ideas begin: in your head, not with your mouth or on your keyboard.
— Joel Schwartzberg, The Language of Leadership