Imagine this: you arrive at a conference to speak. 1,000 people have turned up to hear you and the room is fizzing with energy. The applause that meets your introduction is tumultuous and takes two full minutes to die out. Yet, within ten minutes of you beginning, over half of the room has walked out. Of those who remain, most are playing with their phones, staring at the wall or doodling.

Then imagine a similar scene. This time, the audience is spellbound, hanging on every single word. When the speech finishes, applause erupts and lasts twice as long as that which greeted your arrival.

Both of these speeches really happened, and I was in the audience for both. The speaker in the first scenario was a titan of African business who had transformed a sleepy African company into a global giant but who had turned this willing audience to sleep.

The second speaker was Bunmi Oni, then Managing Director of Cadbury Schwepps West Africa, who was addressing Harvard Business School’s Africa Business Conference in February 2004.

Oni had the whole room utterly transfixed. He certainly had that effect on me. He had me so mesmerized with the vivid pictures he painted of unprecedented African opportunities that I immediately quit my plum job at Diageo in New York to return home to Ghana.

Oni did what every great speaker should do: he inspired me.  With a single speech, he made me give up on my American dream to pursue my very own African dream.

These two experiences have made me a student of public speaking. So, on a recent visit to London, when I learnt a friend was attending a talk on ‘the art of public speaking’, I tagged along.

The talk took place in London’s achingly cool Groucho Club and the speaker was Simon Lancaster. Lancaster has written hundreds of speeches for Fortune 500 C-suite executives, Sunday Times rich list entrepreneurs, politicians, clerics, royalty, famous celebrities and rock stars.

Winning Minds

The world’s most powerful people turn to him when they have something important to say and, having seen him in action, I can understand why. He blew my mind.

With videos of Obama, Malala and Steve Jobs, Lancaster showed that there is a secret Language of Leadership that has determined who has held power throughout the course of history.

Now, his new book, Winning Minds: Secrets from the Language of Leadership, sets out this secret language for all of us to learn.

Lancaster’s approach combines ancient rhetoric and neuroscience. By looking not just at the art of public speaking but also the science of listener attention, Lancaster gives us staggering insights with instantly applicable practical techniques.

For instance, neuroscientists have shown that when we listen to people speak, what they say goes to two parts of our brain: one part of the brain analyses the sound, the other analyses the substance. So great speakers match the rhythm and the reasoning. They match the music and the meaning.

There is an easy way we can make our speech more musical. Use the ‘rule of three’. Great speakers have used the so-called ‘rule of three’ throughout history. The Ancient Romans used to call it ‘tricolon’.

But it’s still regularly used in politics (“Government of the people, by the people, for the people,” “Education! Education! Education!,” “No! No! No!”), film (“The Good, the Bad and the Ugly”; “Infamy, Infamy, they’ve all got it in for me,” “Sex, Lies and Videotape”) and advertising (“A Mars a day helps you work, rest and play,” “Beanz Meanz Heinz,” “Snap! Crackle! Pop!”).

Our brains love the sound of arguments which comes in threes. There is something intensely satisfying about it. It creates the illusion of completeness, certainty and finality. Just like that.

It seemed shocking that something so simple could be so powerful. But research last year from Georgetown University and the University of California tested it and they found it remained just as powerful as ever.

Their research was called, “Three Charms, Four Alarms.”

So, a rhyme! Why would an academic institution title a research with a rhyme?

There’s separate research that shows people are more likely to believe something is true if it rhymes, than if it doesn’t rhyme.

It sounds ludicrous but it’s true.

Rhymes are considered to be signifiers of truth, but there is no reason why a statement should be any more likely to be true simply because it rhymes. In fact, the opposite is often the case: rhymes can be very effective in concealing fallacies.

An apple a day doesn’t really keep the doctor away. The “i before e except after c” rule we are all taught at school is actually nonsense. There are 44 examples of words in which this is true and more than 900 examples of words where it is not. And you haven’t really got to speculate to accumulate. In fact, if there is one lesson from the financial crisis it is that speculation leads to liquidation.

There are plenty of other techniques which are analysed throughout the book: from story-telling to empathy, from flattery to story-telling, from humour to humility.

Every aspiring or existing leader has lots to gain from reading this book. As Dale Carnegie transformed business communication in the 20th Century, so Simon Lancaster looks set to achieve the same effect in the 21st Century.

So, do you want to be the kind of person who leaves people inspired, like Bunmi Oni did with me over ten years ago? Or do you want to be the kind of person who inspires people to leave… 

If you want to find your inner leader, read this amazing book.

By: Elikem Nutifafa Kuenyehia