Speak from Your Heart: Connect with Millions [Book excerpt]

The following is a chapter from Tribe CEO Vern Oakley’s recent book, Leadership in Focus: Bringing Out Your Best on Camera. It makes the case for leaders to attempt to show their true authentic selves on video (as opposed to what they think others want to see). This excerpt also recounts the story of the King’s Speech, about King George VI.

Speak from Your Heart: Connect with Millions—Key Ideas

  • Forget what you think a leader should look like on camera. Your video will have more influence if you show the real, human you.
  • It’s especially important to communicate directly with your audience if you lead a large organization. If you rely on others to share your message, it’s all too easy for it to be misin- terpreted by the time it reaches the front lines.
  • A simple way to look at authenticity is to see it as writing your own story. Each time you appear on video you’re unveiling a new chapter.
  • Being authentic doesn’t mean sharing everything about yourself or exposing all of your vulnerabilities. You can share a side of yourself that is most appropriate for the context.

“The cave you fear to enter holds the treasure you seek.”

My assignment was to direct the CEO of an international company in the entertainment industry. The leader was an urbane, continental woman who was sophisticated in matters of the media.

She was, understandably, very busy, so busy she didn’t have any prep time available to speak to me before the shoot.
The film would be shown on her company’s private intranet. She had just been appointed CEO after her predecessor, who was beloved by the company, had stepped down. Tens of thousands of people would see her share her vision for the first time. She would be speak- ing directly to all of her employees, hoping to inspire them, connect with them, and make sure they were all working toward her new vision for the company. A lot was riding on this shoot.

The CEO knew her information well enough to discuss it on camera without a teleprompter. (See chapter 10 for more about the teleprompter.) When we finally met, I suggested she speak directly to the camera when she answered my interview questions. The kind of communication she was delivering is most intimate and powerful done this way. She immediately said, “I don’t want to do that.” Given her lack of preparation, who could blame her? It’s hard to look directly into the camera. It feels cold and uncomfortable, but the end result is anything but.

OK, so maybe she wouldn’t look into the camera, but I needed to help this CEO realize that this one short shoot, this brief interlude in her day, offered her the rare opportunity to demonstrate courage, imagination, emotion, and brio to tens of thousands of employees at once. It’s crucial for anyone about to go on camera to have this mind-set.

My job was not to do the shoot the way I wanted; my job was to help this leader engage. Since I preach the virtues of authenticity, I had to step out on a limb and do something authentic. As firmly and diplomatically as I could, I said, “We’ll do whatever you want if you help me help you to find a way to speak from your heart.” This got her attention.

I explained that a more humanizing presentation would hold the viewers’ attention and help them connect with her ideas. I suggested we shoot her in action interacting with her staff, and out on the street walking around her neighborhood. I begged her to be spontaneous and to answer off-the-cuff questions to which she had no prepared answers. She thought this over for several long seconds, shook her head, and said curtly, “I don’t want to do that.”

Her answer was the classic response to an unfamiliar situation where a person feels vulnerable, something I’ve seen often throughout my career. Many shoots begin with some kind of negative, dismissive power remark. For example, one executive said, “Let’s just get this over with!” I don’t blame leaders for being careful, but I also don’t have to take a negative as a “no.”

As we talked, I learned the CEO didn’t lack courage, imagination, or humanity. The real problem was simple. Because of her jam-packed schedule, she wasn’t prepared. I explained that the communications team and I had tried to get on her schedule to prep her. She knew this was true. So I said we could prep her then, we could make it work in the time allotted. And I reminded her if she were ever unhappy with a take, we would simply do another one and only link the best performances together in our edits.

I think the CEO sensed the seriousness of my frustration and decided my convictions were worth her time. She was willing to try something new. Once she made the decision, she threw herself at the challenge. My crew and I filmed her speaking directly to the camera about her love for the company. We used three camera angles, which let us condense her one-hour interview into a short, coherent piece. We balanced the interview with footage of her having genuine interactions with colleagues around the office. This kind of B-roll was the perfect way to show the new leader in time and space. We simply put her together with people with whom she had business to talk about, and let the camera roll. Viewers could see her real excitement as she exchanged ideas with colleagues and her whole team’s genuine warmth and camaraderie toward one another. We also sprinkled in shots of her riding the subway to work with colleagues who lived in her neighborhood.

The resulting film was a revelation. By being herself, the leader came through like gangbusters; her native charm, intelligence, and devotion to her company were indisputable in her statements. Nothing she did was made up. She really did ride the subway to work with colleagues and she really did love her job. The film made a lasting and positive impression with stakeholders because it celebrated her human spirit. She was not only great on camera, she was authentically great—because she spoke from her heart.

Her video was also a great example of the wonders of editing. I’ll talk more about this in later chapters, but as you ease into the idea of video, remember that the pressure isn’t all on you to make a fantastic film. That’s why you have a production crew. They will blend your presentation with B-roll, music, and tactful editing to create a powerful viewing experience that you will be proud of.

When people hear titles like CEO or president, the words conjure up some remote “suit” sitting in a corner suite on the top floor, a king or queen with feet of clay they will never meet. Video is one of the best ways to convey to the majority of employees that there’s a real beating heart under the Brooks Brothers blazer. Video can reach any number of people, anywhere, at any time, while allowing the speaker to show his or her humanity. Our subway-riding CEO showed her human side by letting us balance candid footage with a direct, passionate address to employees about her goals for the company. By the end of the video, the only stereotypical thing about this “suit” was, well, her suit. But nobody was paying attention to her clothes by that point.

Sometimes when I sense that a leader I’m filming is uncomfortable, I discover that he or she has a preconceived notion of how a leader should look and act. And I sense deep down these leaders are trying to fake it. As they talk on camera, you can almost hear their true selves saying, “I never talk like this. This is nonsense. What am I saying? Why am I acting like this?” This is when it’s important to ease their fears and speak truth to power. I don’t want them to mimic some hypercontrolled posture they think a leader should assume—and neither does anybody else.

When leaders unpack their content on camera, their message is simply the freight on the train. In order for the freight or content to resonate en masse, the public must know that the conductor is for real. Is this someone they’d trust to transport their enterprise through adversity and into the future? Does he or she care about people or only about profits? Does a heart beat beneath the suit? Forget trying to live up to your image of what a leader should look like. All you need to do is just focus on looking like you.

I’ve made it my business to help leaders speak from the heart by helping them overcome their fear of exposing their humanity and vulnerability on camera. I’ve taught leaders that those who do their homework and speak to others as fellow humans have more credibility. Some of them have even told me they’ve become better leaders in the process.

Exposing vulnerabilities to establish your humanity requires introspection and risk taking. There’s no evolutionary imperative for us as a species to perform on camera. To make the task of doing so even more challenging, leaders today need to project themselves to an increasingly complex world and an increasingly complex set of environments. It’s not only on a face-to-face basis, but it’s multichannel, cross-border, and cross-cultural. I’ve come to see that few leaders have the time (or frankly the interest) to explore the psychological elements of what it takes to be genuine on camera, especially when there’s pressure to connect on so many levels. It’s a daunting prospect. If this describes you, don’t worry. Nobody expects you to go from zero to authentic overnight, but this book offers strategies that can help you unlock your true self in front of the lens sooner than you may think was possible.

It’s especially critical to cut through the noise if you lead a large organization. Connecting with your tribe is the only way to make your vision crystal clear to everyone. You want them to know exactly what everyone in the organization is working to achieve. Jim Tusty, a longtime producer who has filmed leaders at Coca-Cola, GE, and Raytheon, among many other places, has seen this important issue play out among his clients. He points out that oftentimes, companies seem to think that if a CEO explains his vision clearly to his top-level leaders, those leaders will communicate the exact same message to those below them.

“The false assumption is that the SVP is going to talk to the VP, who’s going to talk to the managers, who’s going to talk to the next level, until you get those frontline people,” says Tusty. He goes on to explain that two things happen in this scenario. The first is unintentional miscommunication. It’s a game of telephone with lots of opportunity for things to get misunderstood. The other is the inevitable midlevel manager who disagrees with the CEO and is saying to himself or herself, “I don’t agree with that. That’s not how this company has done it. We’ve always turned right. That’s what I’m going to do.” The midlevel manager is in open disagreement because it’s difficult to see the big picture from his perspective, and the CEO’s vision may contradict the manager’s personal interests. “Direct communi- cation from the CEO is critical,” Tusty says. “Then every employee in the organization will understand the top-line message, the main direction, and no middle manager can mess that up.”1
The benefits of communicating directly with everyone on the ladder go beyond just the words you speak. Studies in neuroscience prove that a leader’s emotions, mood, and tone deeply affect those who look to them for guidance. An article in Six Seconds highlights emotional intelligence icon Daniel Goleman’s explanation of “mirror neurons,” which are “a kind of ‘neural wi-fi’ that monitors what is happening in other people.” He says, “This system tracks their emotions, what movements they’re making, what they intend, and it activates, in our brains, precisely the same brain areas as are active in the other person. This puts us on the same wavelength and it does it automatically, instantaneously, and unconsciously.”2

When applying this concept to business, Goleman goes on to explain that the leader’s internal state affects employees’ mind-sets and their ability to perform. Interestingly, mirror neurons don’t discriminate between in-person interactions and those on-screen. In fact, studies by one of the discoverers of mirror neurons, neuroscientist Vittorio Gallese, confirm that when we see someone do or feel something on film, the same areas that would be active in that person’s brain are also activated in our own. It doesn’t matter whether the other person is on-screen or in the room with us.3

So effective video communication won’t only clarify your message. Your on-screen vibe can literally contribute to shaping the culture you want your company to have.

The term authenticity is often bandied about in business books and media. For some, it has come to signify a kind of permanent state, once attained. But authenticity is anything but. It is a philosophical and existential state that, for me, means you’re constantly working on being true to yourself and to your beliefs. The word is often used to describe one quality of a great leader. People want to follow leaders who are real. They want to be led by people who work hard to find and refine their true selves.

A simple way to look at authenticity is to see it as writing your own story. Each time you appear on video you’re unveiling a new chapter. So, whose story do you want to write? Is it the story of a leader who is true to herself and her beliefs, and who stands by her people? Someone who works hard to grow and encourages her peo- ple to grow with her? Or do you prefer to recite lines from a role to which you’ve been assigned by the status quo, by society, or your own imagined rulebook? Audiences crave authenticity partly as a reac- tion to political and economic turbulence. The public has become disenchanted with business people and politicians who seem to only say what they think people want to hear. We don’t want slick leaders anymore. We demand sincerity, honesty, and integrity. We want our leaders to be real human beings.

When Tony Cicatiello, head of CN Communications, managed the political campaigns of future New Jersey governor Tom Kean, two words summed up his advice to the candidate: Be yourself. Tony recalls, “When we were hiring consultants to join the Kean campaign, one of them said, ‘Well your name is spelled Kean, you pronounce it Cane. You should change it to “keen,” and you talk funny, you have this gap in your teeth, you probably should have your teeth fixed.’ So we fired that person. We all have flaws. But everybody likes people who have flaws. We all realize that we’re human.”4
If Kean had hired that consultant and taken his advice, he would have spent the campaign telling someone else’s story—someone who doesn’t even exist. Nobody would have believed in him because Kean wouldn’t have even believed himself.

The first step to being authentic on camera is to be yourself. But remember that striving for authenticity is a lifelong process. It’s some- thing you need to work on continuously because your story evolves as you grow each day.

To start, look back at your roots and the people and events that helped shape you. Take a risk by asking those friends, colleagues, and relatives what they think your strengths and weaknesses are. Ask for their honest feedback and listen carefully. Their observations may be way off from how you see yourself, but this is a good thing. They’re illuminating your blind spots to help you see the real you. Work to be open, to listen, and to think about how you might leverage your strengths on video, and perhaps those newly discovered weaknesses too. If you’re willing to truly hear and act on trusted feedback, you’ll quickly discover that the actions you take will permeate and benefit much of your work as a leader—not just your video appearance.

Another great way to get a handle on this elusive term is to look at leaders who have exhibited the signature traits that lead to authenticity: showing vulnerability and courage. Such is the story of a reluctant king who inspired the free world. His extraordinary story speaks vol- umes about the magic that occurs when effective communication is coupled with authentic leadership.

“Knowing yourself is the beginning of all wisdom.”

In 1939 a nervous forty-four-year-old monarch sat behind a micro- phone. Millions of people were waiting at their radios to hear what he had to say. The subject was the survival of civilization. The man was George VI, the king of the British Empire.

Nicknamed “Bertie” by the royal family, he ran the gauntlet of childhood disabilities from being knock-kneed to having uncontrollable stammering. Painful splints straightened the bone deformities, but the stammering dogged him into adulthood. The middle-aged monarch was about to prepare his subjects across the globe to go to war against Nazi Germany.

Bertie never wanted to be king. The title was thrust on him when his brother abdicated. But now that he wore the crown, George VI was determined to become an effective leader. His goal was to use mass communication to inspire courage, hope, and the commitment to a fight for freedom. Stumbling on his words would have the opposite effect.

Long before the speech, the king began working intensively with a voice therapist in London. And in the days before the radio address, the monarch took an active role in shaping what he was about to say. As he faced the microphone, he was certain his message was true. The question was whether he could deliver it clearly. He knew that in this moment, his people needed to see him as the courageous and confident leader that he was. There was no time for stammering and fumbling his words, as everyone knew he did. On that day, they needed to see him as a leader who could carry them through a terrible situation that they weren’t able to face on their own.
As the king began to speak, there were long pauses and a few minor mumbles, but his confidence grew with each word. His opening sentence was simple and from the heart. Instead of speaking to the masses, he spoke to each listener individually.

In this grave hour, perhaps the most fateful in our history, I send to every household of my peoples, both at home and overseas, this message, spoken with the same depth of feeling for each one of you as if I were able to cross your threshold and speak to you myself.5

Now, I want to be clear that giving a speech, especially on radio, is very different from appearing on video, but there’s still so much to learn from Bertie’s iconic broadcast. To start, the world thought Bertie was nearly incapable of speaking publicly, so by the time he successfully uttered the last words of his message, the king’s cour- age turned his subjects into followers. His actions told the story of a leader whose people now saw as someone they could trust. Everyone knew how hard he had worked to simply be able to speak through that microphone to reach them. It was a major stride in earning influence with his people. By exposing his own humanity and vulnerability, George VI rallied his empire and proved he was a true and authentic leader.

George VI’s speech is also one of history’s first examples of what can happen when a leader leverages the power of mass media to connect with his or her people. Bertie didn’t just stand at a podium and give a speech. He went to the place where his audience liked to hear stories. In 1939, that place was radio. In 1960, JFK knew it was critical to connect with people through their television sets. And today, we need to meet our audience where they’re looking the most: online videos. Bertie figured out, decades before others, that the best way to rally your tribe is to share your story wherever your people go to listen.

“The highest of distinctions is service to others.”

Bertie’s famed broadcast reveals another great lesson in authenticity: It’s important to know which side of yourself to show in a given situation. We all have different sides to our authentic selves that we can manage and project depending on the specific communication goals. To be authentic doesn’t mean telling people everything about yourself or ticking off a list of vulnerabilities. You can share, instead, the one side of yourself that is most appropriate for the specific video. In Bertie’s case, he knew his call to war didn’t have room for stuttering. So he worked to address the issue to allow his other qualities—confi- dence and courage—to shine.
Jean Tomlin, former HR director at Marks and Spencer, is quoted in a Harvard Business Review article on this very topic. She says she considers the needs and expectations of the people she’s communicating with when she decides which part of her personality to share.

“I want to be me, but I am channeling parts of me to the context,” she said. “What you get is a segment of me. It is not a fabrication or a façade—just the bits that are relevant for that situation.”

The article’s authors posit that “great leaders seem to know which personality traits they should reveal to whom and when. They are capable of adapting to the demands of the situations they face and the people they lead, yet they do not lose their identities in the process. Authentic leaders remain focused on where they are going but never lose sight of where they came from.” This idea especially resonates when it comes to your video appearances. A merger that involves potential risk might require a more circumspect but optimistic you on camera. A video highlighting your company’s next innovation offers room for you to geek out talking about the work that allowed you and your team to get this far. You are yourself in every context, but you’re choosing the right version of you for each place and time.
Sometimes authenticity can shine through with just a few powerful words. During the 2008 presidential campaign, Senator John McCain defended his opponent at a televised town meeting. When some in the crowd shouted out that Barack Obama was a “liar” and a “terrorist,” McCain said, “We want to fight, and I will fight, but I will be respectful. I admire Senator Obama and his accomplishments, and I will respect him.”7 He stared straight at the hecklers; his posture was natural but resolute. After the senator from Arizona said what he had to say, everyone could see that he meant it, even those in the crowd who booed him. This was a true leader speaking from the heart in a few brief words. It didn’t take a long, drawn-out speech for McCain to show viewers his humanity in that moment. In fact, this act of courage may have revealed more about McCain as a leader than anything he could have said during an hours-long presidential debate.

Another way to share one of your human sides—perhaps more intentionally than McCain did in the previous example—is to talk about what you love. As a director, I make a point of asking leaders about their passions and then I find a way to sprinkle these little details into their video performances. When you talk about your passions on camera, your authenticity will shine through and your audience will feel they’ve gotten to know you. They’ll want to listen to what you have to say afterward. You’re headed up the mountain and you want to make sure your people are following you.

I said previously that you don’t need to see yourself as a storyteller to work in personal details. I mean it—just a couple of extra words can have a big impact. For example, say you’re opening a new plant in South Carolina. You could say something as simple as, “I’ve always loved South Carolina because my family and I used to vacation here when I was a boy.” If you’re talking about competition in your industry, you could say something like, “It’s tough competing in this space, but I have to say I’m a very competitive guy. I won the chili cook-off in my town three years in a row.”

It’s these small personal touch points that humanize us. You can mention them quickly, without ever getting off topic. But your love for your shared work also has to shine through with vigor if people are going to see you as a leader worth following. As we will discover in a later chapter, being prepared and knowing your material intimately is another key to a successful video appearance, and it’s essential in building trust among your viewers. Knowing the facts, figures, and other details of your message shows that you’re invested in your work and that you’re capable of guiding your people.

SpaceX founder Elon Musk shows such genuine excitement for his work in a video interview with actor Joseph Gordon-Levitt,8 that his enthusiasm would outshine that of a toddler at Disney World. Yet he’s fully composed and professional throughout the interview. The video captures Musk talking about his plans to revolutionize space travel and establish Mars as a self-sustaining civilization. He opens by saying, “If you asked anyone what were some of the greatest things that happened in the 20th century, I think they’d say, ‘We landed on the moon.’ That’s freakin’ awesome!”9 His passion for space travel nearly reverberates off the screen and is instantly contagious.

When asked what would need to happen for people to live on Mars, Musk dishes the science in a way that’s easy to understand and funny. He refers to Mars as a “fixer-upper of a planet” and explains the practical steps needed to make its atmosphere habitable for humans. It’s hard to imagine that any talk of “releasing greenhouse gasses” could be exciting, but Musk’s fervor for his work has viewers hanging on every detail.

The video also shows us how painless and relatable storytelling can be, again, even if you don’t see yourself as a natural storyteller. In just a few seconds, Musk tells the interviewer that Star Wars had a big impact on him because it was the first movie he’d ever seen. He even named SpaceX’s Falcon rocket after the Millennium Falcon, the iconic spacecraft in Star Wars. This brief anecdote lets us see Musk as the daydreaming child that so many viewers can relate to. It took literally seconds for him to make that connection with viewers.

Ultimately, the opportunities to show your authenticity are limitless. The real you may shine in a brief moment of expressing your values, as we saw with John McCain, or you can take a bit more time to plan what you’ll say. That’s one of the great benefits of video—you are in a safe space. You can work with your communications team and director trying several approaches until you feel totally comfortable. This isn’t a media interview where someone might try to put you on the spot or catch you off guard. And even if your final performance is not flawless, your viewers won’t mind. They just want to know that they’re hearing from a honest-to-goodness human.

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“It’s one thing to understand the role of video in business communication, it’s another to know how to use video to solve actual business problems. Vern Oakley gets that.”


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