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A170 Tom Rozman: Observations on the Military Leader as a Speaker

Above: The author as a speaker at a 2008 dedication ceremony at the new library at West Point to a mixed civilian/military audience of some 100 to include the Polish Consul and the Academic Dean (a brigadier general).

Article by A170 Tom Rozman 

Over a continuous military and state level civil service career that spanned over five decades, on reflection, the ability to speak effectively to small and large groups appears to have been critical to ultimate effectiveness as a leader.  This would seem to draw a “that’s a blinding flash of the obvious” response, but I would not be so hasty in such a conclusion.  From observations made in that career and continuing observation, there are many leaders who in a range of ways were not and are not effective speakers.  As well even effective speakers have bad days and clearly miss the mark.

As a start point to these observations, my sense of the military leader’s range of speaking terrain is comprehensive.  Any military leader, earlier than later in their service and especially if their career becomes extended to several decades, will be forced to exercise speaking skill in the following areas, and this is not an exhaustive list.  Any lack of ability by a leader may compromise their effectiveness, sometimes severely.

  • Speaking presentations during instruction/training sessions for small to platoon size (20-40 personnel) elements
  • Speaking presentation to small groups in tactical environments of warning orders, operations orders and other similar communications
  • Speaking presentations as a military school instructor for school courses
  • Speaking presentations/briefings as a staff officer to staff groups during tactical unit staff planning work
  • Speaking presentations to higher level military staffs and commanders
  • Speaking presentations to civilian community groups adjacent to military installations
  • As a tactical unit leader at squad, platoon, company, battalion and brigade speaking to the assembled organization on a range of topics such as policies, operations and command emphasis
  • Speaking to other than community civilian groups such as legislative, technical, or project related
  • Speaking/briefings to Army developmental teams

As noted this is not an exhaustive listing.  The settings range from intimate and highly charged like entering a combat situation to more bland environments like classrooms or briefing rooms. The groups may be very small, two or three people, ranging upwards to thousands.  The groups, teams, and organizations may be highly technical or professional bodies or large general groups of the public. To be effective, the speaker must have credibility, present confidently, project well and most critically be able to sense and read the audience.   The same speaking style and mode will typically not play well for all speaking audiences.

From much experience of personally presenting and observing thousands of others do so and noting the effects and result, some general points appear to hold.

  • Speaker presence has much to do in setting a tone whether the audience is receptive or otherwise.  Given the group and setting the speaker’s demeanor, attitude, dress, physical appearance, voice modulation and projection and other factors can all play a role in the speaker’s effectiveness or lack of effectiveness with the particular audience being addressed.
  • Timing of delivery – a speaker with poor timing will qualify reception by the audience.
  • Communication of audience empathy – speakers who seem to achieve a quick audience sensing that they understand and share the experience with the audience achieve an almost instant bonding with the audience.
  • A speakers communication of any sense of speaker officiousness, doctrinaire persona, arrogance, egoism or other self indulging traits will tend to lose the audience sooner or latter, usually sooner, the audience passing into a non-receive mode.
  • Speakers who are flexible and able to adapt and adjust in the presentation circumstance tend to be more effective.
  • The speaker who knows the subject and can communicate in language that can be understood by the audience will always be more effective.
  • Speakers in command of the presentation situation through their acquired skill, especially those who have an easy unobtrusive manner in doing so,  who regularly during the presentation read the body language of their audience and adjust, typically seem to do well.  The adjustment may be soft and subtle or when warranted a more dramatic adjustment.
  • The prepared and confident speaker who clearly has mastery of the presented material, able to field any question easily typically has a credibility quotient that will usually prevail through almost any presentation with most audiences.
  • Leaders who do not for some reason present well in appearance or affect, such as voice or voice projection, less than confident or sure presence, dress inconsistent to the context of the presentation and other factors typically are compromised in being effective unless they are able to counterbalance a weaker area with a stronger capability in another that overrides…I have seen this with a person of small stature instantly establishing technical credibility with an audience that tends to respond well to a certain physical presence and less well to a different presence.
  • One factor that is absolutely vital to success and could almost be repeated for eternity – speaker credibility. Once speaker credibility dies, even when an audience appears to be engaged, it is likely dismissing the speaker.

Of course, the audience, situation of presentation and purpose of the speaker’s comment all affect the format and style of the speaker.  In the case of the military speaker, as noted earlier, the range of speaking engagements is hugely varied and the requirement to speak begins very early in career.  In the case of officers who commission from academies the requirement begins to surface even earlier as cadets.  Those who fail to develop the necessary skills will be greatly compromised and in certain cases removed from service.  Speaking skill at this early tactical level is vital to personal progress as a leader.

On a more advanced level as careers progress and more sophisticated professional audiences of varying sizes must be addressed for different purposes, leader ability to effectively adapt and tailor speaking skill to effect becomes vital for that leader’s progression to more involved and sophisticated leader roles as a career develops.  Those unable to effectively communicate through the speaking medium typically are relegated to lesser roles unless they have developed or demonstrated some counterbalancing abilities and capabilities.  Even when the system may have been somewhat corrupted and an individual has been propelled to higher role…a weakness or deficiency in their speaking ability will compromise their effectiveness, never mind any negative perception that may exist as to how they advanced.

The above observations are made after personally experiencing the range of speaking requirement that had to be met at squad, platoon, detachment, company, and battalion command levels as well as battalion, brigade, division, corps and Department of the Army staff levels for over 18 years which included numerous presentations to senior executive leadership and foreign military establishments from 1985 to 1992, i.e., several times to local regional German capital projects planning conferences, the U.S. Army Europe Annual Training Conference, and three times to sessions of the British/U.S. and German/U.S. Army staff talks.  Presentations were also made to major defense industry consortia.

Additionally, instructor trainer presentations requirements spanned some seven years.  Presentations as a member of the Army were made to other civilian and public audiences outside industry one being a Memorial Day presentation made in the city of Northampton, Massachusetts (see below; click on the image for better viewing).

This experience was further augmented by over two decades of civilian presentation experience to civilian leadership, professional, government to include legislative, public and interest groups.  The presentations ranged from instructor/training, policy sharing, project updating and public debate forum.  Two of the more significant recent presentations made were one to the American Society of Safety Engineers Annual Conference in Dallas, Texas in 2015 and another to the Virginia Annual Occupational Safety and Health Conference in 2016.

In addition to the above observations supported by this experience I also noted that military presenters who had effectively transitioned to the civil sector were typically the strongest and most effective presenters.  They tended to have a better handle on their subject matter, spoke with convincing credibility and confidence and seemed most effective in reading an audience.  As well, their comment typically made the point and in some form followed the almost axiomatic military presentation model of tell them what you plan to tell them, tell them and tell them what you told them.   They also seemed usually more effective in handling the question and answer aspect of a presentation.

This above does not dismiss effective speakers of civilian background only; there have been a number, but again, anecdotally, the military background individuals usually proved the more effective speakers.   This said, the overarching observation was the criticality of speaking skill to the effectiveness of the military leader and for that matter any leader.  A person in a leadership role whose ability to organize effective thought and present that thought in an organized and well delivered manner tailored to the audience was in almost every case an effective leader.  Those who could not, were often less effective if not incapable of exercising leadership.

There were exceptions, but they were few.  A person cast as a leader who presented well to the audience being communicated with, for whatever purpose, and could speak in a manner appropriate to that audience with an organized and to a purpose presentation, as a speaker, typically proved an effective if not strong leader…even when soft spoken.