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Speak from Your Heart as a Leader

By John Millen

A few weeks ago I was giving a keynote presentation on business storytelling at the Ohio Society of Association Executives. Near the beginning I shared a story of a powerful experience I had 25 years ago when I was leading media relations for an insurance company in California.

Part of my role was to go to the scene of disasters and work with the media, which over the years took me to hurricanes, fires, earthquakes and other tragedies.
 
Hell on Earth
My first major disaster was a scorched-earth fire that destroyed more than 400 homes in the beautiful seaside town of Santa Barbara. It’s usually heaven on earth, but this day it looked like hell on earth – as if a meteor had struck the side of the mountain.
 
To learn the business, I accompanied a claims representative to the completely destroyed home of one of our customers. He was an elderly widower who had lost everything – all of his family photos and other possessions – in the devastating fire.
 
During my presentation, I choked up and had to pause while telling this story. I still feel his loss. Because of the lights in my eyes, I couldn’t see all of the nearly 200 people in the audience, but I saw glistening eyes in the rows nearby, and a woman in the front row was dabbing tears.
 
I realized we had connected. My heart had spoken to hers.
 
Winning Hearts and Minds
We often use terms related to body organs to describe how we communicate with other human beings. We are of like minds, we trust our guts, our hearts go out to people.
 
Of all of those, I believe our hearts are most powerful in making a connection with another human being. That’s why, for leaders, we talk about winning peoples’ hearts and minds, not their minds and hearts.
 
With this in mind, I’ll offer a few tips for speaking from your heart to make a deeper connection with people:

Share yourself. We have to be open and risk vulnerability in order to receive the same from others. People want to know who you are. What experiences shaped you? What brought you here? What motivates you? In sales, we talk about the development of trust as “know, like and trust.” “Know” starts with sharing yourself.

Be personal. Talk like a normal human being. So often during talks leaders will shift into “presentation mode,” being formal and stiff. Kill the jargon and relate to people in a way that shows you are real and open. In a world where so much is contrived, people appreciate sincerity and authenticity.

Show your passion. What do you love in your life or your work? Sharing that and displaying your enthusiasm will go a long way toward showing people your humanity. We can sense when people are excited about something and we get excited, too.

In high school in California, I had a history teacher who was an aviation enthusiast, with a focus on WWII. He had small model planes hanging throughout the room. Though it was the last thing my friends and I would typically care about, by the end of the semester we were going to aviation shows.
 
Our teacher’s passion and stories won us over. I still love planes today. (He followed his passion and left teaching years ago. He hunts for historical planes that were lost and has made significant discoveries.)

Listen to people. When we are present in the moment, when we listen fully to others, our words will flow more naturally. For some reason, maybe because our subconscious takes over, it’s much easier to speak freely and fully when we’ve listened to what people want and need in the moment. I’ve found this to be true across the board – from large audiences to one-on-one conversations.

Tell your story. Perhaps the easiest and most effective way to speak from your heart is to tell your story. As humans, we are hardwired for telling and hearing stories. They convey who we are, they teach us lessons and they build trust. Stories connect us as people.

Sharing your story will build a bridge with the people who are most important to you and your success.
 
It’s not easy to risk vulnerability, to speak from your heart. It’s uncomfortable, but that’s kind of the point. Anything that takes you out of your comfort zone takes courage.
 
Or as they say, it takes heart.