Blog : The First Rule for Leaders

The First Rule for Leaders: Have a Message

OK, so there are tons of things you’ll want to master to be an eloquent leader. But what’s the first?

The first, and the most fundamental to leadership—is your message.

One, clear, credible, and compelling idea that you own.

Just think of your audience. How frustrating is it when a leader speaks without a clear message. You’ve heard them—going on and on to answer a question, rambling when making a meeting comment, or just plain talking without saying anything in particular. Sometimes, after a lengthy excursion through their subject, they may finally grasp what they’re trying to say, and come up with the words, “So what I’m saying is……” But putting the message at the end—after you’ve lost your audience, is a shame.

Speaking as a leader involves a clear intention to get a message across. And placing that message at the beginning, rather than the end, is paramount.


Here are the six criteria of a good message.

  1. It’s one idea.Streamline your thinking down to a single, essential idea–the point you want your audience to buy into. Sometimes speakers have too many ideas, or else they have no idea what they’re trying to say. Too many ideas or no idea–both produce the same thing: confusion.
  2. You express it in a single, clear sentence.If your message is more than one sentence, or is a long, convoluted sentence, your listeners won’t “get it.” If you say to a client, for instance, “We’re here for you, we can deliver. And of course we want to work with you on this next opportunity, which sounds very exciting,” you’ll be leaving the client with multiple messages. Instead, try: “We’re confident we can deliver for you.”
  3. It’s engaging.Your message should engage the hearts and minds of your listeners, otherwise they’re less likely to buy into your main idea. I once asked a director of strategy who’d just joined a firm, “What would your message be if your boss asks you, ‘How do you see your job?’” He replied, “I’d say, ‘My goal is to get the company to live the strategy.’” That would’ve been music to the ears of the VP of strategy.
  4. It carries your convictions.Make sure your message is an idea you believe in. When Lou Gehrig announced to fans at Yankee Stadium that he was ailing, on July 4, 1939, he delivered a deeply felt message. Instead of expressing regrets, he said, “I feel like the luckiest guy in the world.” Don’t undercut yourself or your company with halfhearted statements or decorous platitudes that you don’t really believe in.
  5. It’s positive.Yes, there are times when you’ll need to deliver bad news, but even then, you should spend more time on the high ground than the low ground. No matter how sobering your message, it should move the room in a hopeful direction, highlighting aspirational goals, possibilities, and accomplishments. Sometimes circumstances make this easy and your message is just, “I’m thrilled by your performance as a team” or, “We closed the deal, and you all made it happen.”You can still sound a note of positivity when that isn’t the case, though: “While we face major challenges, I’m confident we can remain the provider of choice in our industry.” Whatever you do, always move from negatives to positives.
  1. It’s recognizable.Make sure everyone can identify your message when they hear it. Introduce it with phrases like, “My point is,” “My message is,” “My view is,” “As I see it,” “I believe that,” or even “Here’s the thing.”

Remember these fundamentals of a good message, and if you do – your message will be heard by and resonate with your audience.

This article is adapted from the author’s column in the November 13, 2017 issue of Fast Company.

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