Photo by Cherie Culleny, US Dept. of Defense / BY CC

Photo by Cherie Culleny, US Dept. of Defense / BY CC

This post was originally published on LinkedIn.

The One Question Good Leaders Always Answer

Some leaders seem to stand out from the rest by their ability to captivate an audience. Their presentations make you nod your head and when they finish, you are left desiring more. These thought leaders provide exactly what you wanted to hear and sometimes they share what you didn’t know you needed.

You can be this type of presenter who is also seen as a leader.

If you learn to prepare your remarks in a way that answers the audiences’ unstated questions, then you will start to establish yourself as an expert. There’s a trick to this.

I’ve been working with Melanie on her interpersonal communication and meeting presentation skills to increase her influence and effectiveness at work. She is a CxO and rising star in her company who is simultaneously securing a thought leadership position in her field and elevating her executive presence among her colleagues. Shepherding her progress has prompted me again to contemplate the subtle differences in communication styles that lead to profoundly divergent results.

This question was on my mind during a recent trip to Boston where I observed Melanie deliver a high-profile and high-stakes speech. At the conclusion of her presentation, Melanie received the blessing of conference organizers to extend her Q&A session by a few minutes to address the audience members queuing at microphones. When Melanie left the stage, she was immediately surrounded by audience members eager for the chance to speak with her in depth. It took more than an hour for the group that assembled around her to disperse.

Melanie is not famous (yet), but reactions like this to her presentations are becoming commonplace and the buzz around her work continues to grow.

Most of the other speakers I saw before and after Melanie on that day in Boston did not receive this type of audience response. Witnessing the lackluster performances of the other presenters sandwiched around her, it was clear that the presentations we encounter in the workplace can be divided into three categories.

Three types of presentations:

WHAT Presentation: The book report of business presentations; they explain what was done, what was accomplished and what worked. These talks are narrowly focused on the experiences of the person giving the presentation and the company or team she represents.

HOW Presentation: Technical in nature, these talks require the audience to have a firm grasp of the subject matter so that they can learn an advanced technique, new skill or alternative methodology. These talks are substantive and detailed.

WHY Presentation: Thought leaders use every opportunity in front of an audience to create context and make creditable predictions about the future. They explain strategy, forecast trends, and reveal provocative opinions.

Thought Leadership Starts with Answering WHY

Putting style and semantics aside, novel and interesting content that is wrapped in context matters most to your audience. Ultimately, the fundamental point of demarcation between boring and brilliant is substance.Stage presence, nerves-control, and visual production are merely skills to master so that your message doesn’t get lost; they are a means to an end. The real point of being a speaker – whether in a meeting room or on a stage – is to spread your ideas.

A good communicator recognizes the audience’s hunger to gain nuggets of insight, find a take-away they can use later, hear an original idea that opens their minds to new possibilities, or experience a spark that lights the fire of creativity. It’s the speaker’s job to deliver. If you don’t sprinkle these gems into your presentation, then it is a guaranteed dud no matter how articulate you are or how beautifully designed your slides appear.

Disappointingly, more than 80 percent of the speeches I heard in Boston were WHAT presentations. It was like watching a parade of primary school science fair projects that didn’t include any helpful clues about how to replicate their results, any context about bigger picture ideas their experiences might foretell, any surprising outcomes, nor any deep insights. The only people who might have felt good after the talks were the presenters themselves who were too blinded by their own egos to notice the glazed expressions of boredom on the faces in the crowd.

Your audience craves substance, so give it to them by answering the WHY and HOW questions that are on their minds.

I know these are the exact questions for which they seek answers because following the boring WHAT presentations, the Q&A sessions were mostly met with silence or with the occasional HOW questions like “How did you get buy-in from the executive leadership?” and “How have you structured your team?”. These questions felt like desperate attempts by audience members to uncover a bit of useful information from the throw-away presentations delivered by forgettable speakers.

On the other hand, the WHY presenters were confronted with WHY follow-up questions. Having established themselves as a fountain of knowledge, audience members flocked to the WHY presenters like Melanie for more information and insights.

If you’re not sure what kind of talk you just gave, notice the type of follow-up questions you receive from your boss, colleagues, or the audience members. If they want to hear more WHY answers from you, then you are on the path to successfully establishing yourself as an expert.


Amanda Marko is president and chief connection officer of Connected Strategy Group, which helps leaders communicate their business strategy and engage stakeholders during times of change.

She also teaches leaders how to use storytelling techniques to engage, inspire, and influence others.

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