The invite comes through for you to attend a session where Management will ‘present the new strategy’?

What would you rather do than attend the meeting?

Scoop your own eyes out with a blunt spoon?

Chew on some razor blades?

Watch back-to-back Putin monologues on Russian mediaeval history?

Why do we find these presentations so dull?

It’s not that they’re using PowerPoint slides; if they’re good, they can actually ease the pain.

Speech acts

The answer lies not in the speakers’ communication style but in the nature of the ‘speech acts’ they’re deploying.

‘Speech act’ is a term coined by the English philosopher J.L. Austin. It’s a concept based on the idea that whenever we speak, we’re either describing the world – what Austin called constative speech acts – or, we’re causing something to happen: performative speech acts.

The reason we’re all bored senseless in management presentations is because all of us, including senior managers,  habitually engage in constative speech. When presenting, those managers are describing the work that the strategy bods have put together or perhaps the latest ideas of the CEO.

Their intent is that you understand something, that you’re ‘clear on the strategy’ or the new values, the new organisation structure, or whatever it may be.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with it; it’s just that their describe-the-world mode of communication will never move you – literally. You sit in your seat until the ordeal comes to a merciful end. It’s safe for someone to describe the world but it won’t cause anything new to happen.

The performative speech act

Compare this with performative speech acts. This mode of communicating is the currency of true leadership.

Declaring something, making a public commitment, making a powerful request. These are all acts of speech designed to move people to action. They challenge and excite.

My business partner Oddi shares a fantastic example of this from his time in the Norwegian military service. A group of former Norwegian special services officers had been planning a trip across the South Pole for months.

They had been huddled around pub tables discussing approach and strategy, describing to each other how they might mitigate risks, debating what equipment to take and so on. Finally, one of the members of the group snapped.

“Enough! I’m leaving for Antarctica on March 1. Who’s joining me?” 

A powerful declaration indeed, paired with an equally compelling invitation. Speech acts like this make something happen. This is leadership.

From my own experience, I recall prevaricating about putting on a charity barn dance some years ago. It was only when I declared that it was going to make it happen on a specific date that I stepped into my leadership, and the world moved around me to make it a reality.

Back to those management presentations. If you’re a leader, commitments, declarations and requests are what the audience wants to hear. In their minds, they’re asking:

What are you standing for? Where’s your commitment in this? What are you actually asking of me?

Address these questions as a leader, and you’ll move the room. Then you know who’s with you and where you have more work to do. Embrace this mode of communicating, and you’ll have transitioned from merely a speaker to a leader.