Smart and Soulful Language Skills for Leaders | Queen's University IRC

Queen's University IRC

Queen's University

IRC Articles and Papers Human Resources and Labour Relations Research and Resources

Smart and Soulful Language Skills for Leaders

Kirsteen MacLeod, Queen's University Industrial Relations Centre
Publication date: January, 2004

What, you may ask, is a yawp — and what does it have to do with being able to communicate well as a leader? Senior managers who participated in a day-long Queen's Industrial Relations Centre custom program found themselves considering this recently.

Let's begin with an explanation of "yawp": it means "to bark or yelp." A "barbaric yawp" is featured in a scene from The Dead Poets Society, in which an unorthodox English professor (actor Robin Williams) gives an assignment that terrifies his shyest student. He wants each person to write a poem and then recite it in front of the class. When the shy student says he didn't write the assigned poem, Mr. Keating writes a line from poet Walt Whitman on the blackboard — "I sound my barbaric yawp." Then, evoking the spirit of Whitman, Keating uses leadership coaching skills to help the boy to "yawp" and move beyond his resistance to create something original.

Okay, that brings us to the connection between barbaric yawping and leadership communications. The scene I have just described was one of four clips that Queen's University Industrial Relations Centre trainers played for senior managers who were participating in the custom communications program. Each clip focused on one of the four key responsibilities of good leader/communicators: to ignite peoples' imagination; to invite them to participate in the enterprise; to inform them of the issues and facts; and to involve people by soliciting input and breaking imaginary barriers (the yawp example). In short, the four I's.

In a very dramatic way, the clips clarified the critical role that leaders play in getting messages across and bringing about change. Participants were energized, setting the stage for two afternoon sessions to help them improve their leadership communications skills — a writing workshop and a presenting workshop.

During the afternoon writing session, I was surprised to notice some participants seemed to be back to where they had been at the beginning of the program: with doubts about the importance of leadership communications. When I began to talk about ways that good writing skills can support leaders in each of their four key roles, referring back to the film clips they'd seen earlier, one participant said: "Yes, that's fine when you are encouraging someone to yawp, or leading an army, but what has this really got to do with me in sewage services?"

We all had a good laugh: it was comical to picture Robin Williams using his over-the-top coaching technique to help staff members to find a new way to achieve productivity gains in municipal waste services. Okay, I said, you may not be saving the world. But you are doing something important, something that adds value to our society, and the principles of good communications are the same for you as they are for any other leader. If you can say it or write it well – clearly and in a compelling way – people are more likely to hear your message, and be influenced. We may not receive Academy Awards, but we can learn a lot from these leadership examples, extracting useful ideas about how to communicate better in everyday life.

Leaders don't always seem to realize that the way they communicate makes a huge difference: both to their ability to lead and to the lives of the people who work for them. It is as though we get so task-focused and pragmatic that we forget all about the strategic, visionary aspect of leadership communications. Yet words are capable of influencing change, and are a potent strategic tool for taking control of communications, instead of just reacting.

Good leader/communicators have great power to:

  • Help to focus people on what's important
  • Minimize speculation
  • Create a sense of community
  • Foster acceptance and ownership, and
  • Keep people moving forward toward common goals.

There is a lot of untapped leadership communications potential out there. That's why in upcoming columns, we plan to apply the principle of the barbaric yawp to break some boundaries and help unleash some of it. Just as Mr. Keating evoked the spirit of Walt Whitman, we plan to summon the powers of good storytelling, poetry, and figurative language to help you improve your skill as leader-communicators.

Communications techniques are changing, reflecting today's greater emphasis on authenticity, self-awareness and relationships in business environments. We want to show you how the smart and soulful use of language will help you win your employees' minds and hearts, and make you a leading force for positive change within your organization.

But for now, we'll sign off with a thought-provoking Yawp for the Day:

The mass of people, within our society or within our corporations, are not primarily motivated by what is rational. It is the emotional, the appeal to self-esteem, the spirit that is the prime mover. — Lawrence Miller, American Spirit: Visions of New Corporate Culture

Sidebar: Timed Writing Exercises

Let's try a quick "timed writing." Like exercising or playing musical scales, timed writings build your abilities when done regularly: they will help you write more quickly, and with more ease and focus.

  • Get a pen and paper. Make sure you won't be interrupted for 10 minutes. Now think for a moment about the writing you do in your job. How do you feel about your writing skills? Are you comfortable when preparing memos or other materials, or not particularly? What are some specific challenges you face relating to written communications in your job? (Perhaps you felt unable to convey your message clearly or in an interesting way – or even elated because you could.) How would you like to improve your writing skills?
  • Now take five minutes to write down how you feel about writing in your job and what you'd like to be able to do better — without stopping to think or taking your pen from the paper to edit. Feel free to go anywhere you want with this: even if you end up writing about how you feel as you are doing the exercise, or veer totally off track – wherever you end up is fine. There is no right answer. What's important is that you don't stop writing for the full five minutes.

As an easy way to improve your skills, make timed writings a habit for writing you do in your job. Here's how:

  • Choose whatever length of time you feel is appropriate to your writing task (perhaps five or ten minutes). For example, I chose five minutes to write the first draft of this exercise. You can use timed writings as a way to get down a first draft of short materials such as memos, or even to map out a structure for long reports.
  • Get a pen and paper, and make sure you won't be interrupted during your writing time. Close your door; call forward your phone — whatever it takes.
  • Now think a few moments about your topic, and your audience. When you are ready, check the clock, and begin writing. Put down whatever comes into your mind. Don't take your pen from the paper, and never stop to edit. This will be surprisingly hard to do at first, but just keep going. If need be, even write down negative thoughts that come up – I can't spell, this is a silly exercise, whatever – just keep writing until your time is up.
  • Now you have something to work with, something creative and unhindered by thoughts about how the audience might react, or your atrocious spelling. Invite your inner editor to join at the next stage: input what you like from your timed writing into your computer, and revise it from there.