The best leaders know how to engage a live audience. You can up your game by taking a lesson from the 18th Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Gen. Martin Dempsey--the best damn speaker in the military. You just gotta learn his patented method of leaning back into his hip like John Wayne in order to be the best military speaker we've had in decades.
Dempsey can hold an audience—even when he does not sing. We will miss that when he retires at the end of this month.
If you don’t see a lot of military folks speak, you may not know that a lot of them still read their speech off of a piece of paper. Seriously. To adults. You might not know that their remarks are often written as if the only reason they were speaking was to fill time. You may not believe that they do not differ their style between doing a military brief and engaging a mostly civilian audience in person.
Dempsey knows better, God love him. Why doesn’t he run for President and make things interesting?
He was not always comfortable with an audience. At the beginning of his four year run as Chairman, we could see that he was as stiff and uncomfortable as anyone else. He learned to do better. He learned to relax into his role and connect with audiences in person. Here’s what all of us can learn by watching him.
1.Talk to the people who are present.
Part of the Chairman’s job is to address live audiences. Dempsey has the uncanny ability to see who is actually present and connect with them on topics they care about. To teachers, he talks about the value of children. To think tank types, he talks about his thoughts on policy. To parents of soldiers, he talks about his own kids (all three of them served in the Army.)
He isn’t focused on not saying the wrong thing in case media is present. Media is always present. He is focused on connecting with the people who took the time to show up in person. That matters.
2. Give us something real.
I saw him speak recently at the Military Child Education Coalition in Washington, DC. This event is chock full of students, teachers and learning professionals who work to make the lives of military kids better. When asked what college students should be doing, he reflected on his own life.
“At 22, the right question to ask is: What exactly are you trying to do with your life? I had a passion for building teams and for trying to make a team more than the sum of its parts.”
It was an answer to a question, an insight to his character, and the kind of remark that challenges the audience to think of what they do best, too.
3. Honor your family.
I’m a huge fan of the military family, so I appreciate every time Dempsey mentions his wife, Deanie (a damn fine speaker herself), his children and grandchildren. For a solid decade, there was a member of the Dempsey family serving in Iraq or Afghanistan. He credits them as one of the three pillars of his life. It would be good to see more leaders not only talk that way, but live it.
4. Tell us a secret.
The thing I will miss most about Dempsey is his ability to convince an audience that he is confiding in them. When asked a question from the audience, he does this John Wayne thing where he will often slouch a little into his uniform and then lean back into his hip in a way that makes you believe that he is telling you something he has told no one else—even if you are in a room with a thousand other people. It doesn’t matter if he really is telling you something big. It doesn’t matter if his whole demeanor is carefully planned and practiced. Somehow he convinces the whole audience that he is there to talk only to them. He charms.
Live audiences today demand that leaders to do more than show up. Dempsey exemplified the kind of leadership that is confident enough to abandon the monologue and lean into a constant dialogue with all the people they lead.