Speak to What Matters to Those You Need to Influence

If you were taught that it doesn’t matter what you say, that 93% of communication is body language, you’re mistaken.  

It’s not your fault. People have been misinterpreting the results of Albert Mehrabian’s study for over 40 years.

In fact, recent research proves that words matter. Greatly. They especially matter when you’re in a leadership position.

If you’re trying to win support from other people for an idea or initiative, then what you say to them, when you say it, and how you say it, will have a direct bearing on whether they listen and respond, or not. If you don’t express yourself in a way that resonates with them, they’ll tune out. Your leadership influence and impact will diminish, and you may fail to achieve your goals and objectives. It could even cost you your job.

Just ask Pauline Marois.

Until last week, the premier was riding pretty high. Having led the Parti Quebecois to victory, she had run the government of Quebec for 19 months with strong support for even the most controversial of her initiatives, the Charter of Values. Madame Marois was so confident in its popular appeal that she called an election on it believing, along with the pollsters and pundits, that it was the means through which to win a majority government.

Well, it didn’t happen. Instead, she lost everything: leadership of the government, the party, and even her own seat. 


Because she changed the conversation. Instead of speaking about the Charter, which had already proven to resonate with the Quebec people, she and her star candidate, high-profile businessman Pierre Karl Péladeau, spoke about something else:

Speaking about sovereignty maybe shouldn’t be that surprising, given that the very reason her political party was founded 46 years ago was to separate Quebec from the rest of Canada. 

But times have changed. And so, it turns out, have the interests of a lot of people in Quebec. Based on the election results, today most people in Quebec are more concerned about jobs and the economy than about being a separate country. 

To her credit, Marois realized pretty quickly that sovereignty wasn’t resonating. She immediately stopped speaking about issues such as the currency of the new country of Quebec. Although just days earlier she had lauded Péladeau for declaring sovereignty as the aim, she now literally pushed him out of the picture:

But it was too late. The sovereignty genie was already out of the bottle, and had already proven polarizing. While she had been talking about an issue that was no longer in their interests, Quebeckers were listening to her opponent speak about their real concerns. She’d lost them. 

As an executive leader, you may not be so dependent on winning votes. At least not literally. You can direct some people to do things whether it matters to them or not. If they work for you, they’ll respond, if only to keep their jobs. 

But if you want to have the kind of leadership authority that makes others – customers, investors, regulators, even employees – respond because they want to, and not just because they have to, then you, too, have to speak about what matters to them. 

Here’s what you can learn from Madame Marois’ mistakes:

  • Don’t assume that what matters most to you matters equally to them. 
  • Always know what their primary interests are right now – at this moment in time. Today – not yesterday or tomorrow. Interests are not a constant. In fact, the only thing constant about them is that they are ever-changing.
  • If it doesn’t already matter to them, or matter as much as it does to you, express it in a way that does. Make it relevant to them. Help them understand why it matters to them, to you, and to your organization. 

The highest performing leaders know one thing for sure.  They must speak to, and act upon, the issues and interests that matter to those they need to influence.