Speaking with power and learning to lead

There we were, nearly 30 fellows, spouses and partners, standing in a circle flapping our arms and blowing through our lips like so many preschoolers at a picnic. The coach at the center of the silliness was Kay Kostopoulos, an actor, teacher and Shakespeare maven, and she had a message for the team.

It takes more than a clear head to speak with power, she said. You’ve got to prepare your body, too.

She urged us to remember, as well, that all of us as speakers have the same tools to use to influence how our audience hears us: primarily, the rate of speaking, the volume, the pitch.

She wanted us to think of those things as dials that we can turn up and down to control how fast we talk and how loud we allow ourselves to be, and to raise and lower our pitch at strategic intervals. Doing so gives us a kind of control over how we are heard that casual speakers rarely bother to seize.

Her message was new for most of us. As journalists and writers we tend to focus on the content of our speech, and rarely consider just how important how we say it is.

Speaking with power, Kostopoulos told us, begins with the body, with lips that are free of tension, with a posture that communicates confidence, with a sense of comfort in your own skin that starts with, well, just that: Being comfortable with the way your body is positioned as you speak.

We took turns with brief introductions. We immediately became aware of half-a-dozen traits that, our coach gently suggested, were undermining our effectiveness as speakers. Our heads nodded, our sentences trailed off in volume, hands found pockets, and our weight shifted from foot to foot without our having realized it.

In the end, the 90 minutes we spent with Kostopoulos didn’t make any of us more powerful speakers – not yet. It was a tease aimed at showing us how much room we have to improve, and to offer one way we might choose to do so.

Some of us are going to follow up with more work with Kostopoulos through her classes at Stanford, and some of us won’t. This year after all has been an endless series of reminders that we have to make choices, often between very good options.

But the value in the session was more than just its worth as a tease to other training in speaking. Like so many other experiences in our two months here, what seemed like play turned out to be guided by rock-solid strategy aimed at better equipping us to be agents of change once we return to the newsrooms of our future.

All of us, 21 journalists from nine countries, are spending the year searching for ideas – for products, business models, innovations, approaches – that will help transform journalism in the coming years. To succeed, we’re beginning to realize, we’re going to have to be good at things that many of us, and most of our colleagues, have ignored: from design to leadership, management to marketing and finance to negotiation.

Our year at Stanford, we’re beginning to see, is helping equip us to return to newsrooms – or to create new ones – as leaders no longer content to simply count on others to steer the ships toward safer waters. We’re going to have to be part of that mission if we’re going to help preserve the journalism that matters so much to all of us.

To do that, we may just need to flap our arms and buzz our lips.