I am 7 years old.  My mother has signed me up for a drama class.  We are presenting a Christmas story. I stand up straight and proud – and begin:

‘Twas the night before Christmas, when all through the house not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse. The stockings were hung by the chimney with care, in hopes that St. Nicholas soon would be there. The children were nestled all snug in their beds, while visions of sugar plums danced in their heads. And Mama in her ‘kerchief, and I in my cap, had just settled our brains for a long winter’s nap.

Suddenly, my mind goes blank – and I panic.  I look left and right until I finally spot my teacher.  She smiles, mouths the next two words, and off I go to perform my last lines perfectly. 

Afterwards my parents come up and congratulate me with big smiles, hugs and kisses.  However, the woman whose opinion means so much to me is my grandmother — not that much taller than I — who is standing behind them with arms crossed, scowling.  “Grandma, Grandma, how did I do? Were you proud of me?” She just looks at me and sternly speaks the words that would change my life:  “Linda Ann Frank, you should never speak in front of large groups of people. You just aren’t very good at it!”

I was devastated.  The wounds of her words were so deep that I never volunteered to speak in elementary school, high school, or even college.  It took being thrust into leadership roles as an adult to really bring me out of my shell.

The Reluctant Speaker

As an officer in the U.S. Army, not speaking is NOT an option.  One position I held was on the recruiting team at Ft Devens MA, where we had to speak in front of high school groups, day after day.  I went kicking and screaming into this role. Yet I recruited twice as many seniors as the rest of the team.  I learned that story-telling was a leadership skill as well as a speaking style. 

At Ft McClellan, AL, I was an Executive Training Officer for a company of 120 women. As an officer, I had the responsibility to teach “soft skills” classes, which included everything you needed to know about medals, awards and bugle calls. Talk about boring!  To add insult to injury, these were evening classes. My students had maybe an hour of sleep each night after grueling days, so class was where they caught up on their sleep. 

I failed the instructor evaluation of my first class because I tried to follow the written script.  I soon discovered that written scripts weren’t working for me as they brought me back to that 7-year-old girl reciting her script, only to get shut down. And they apparently weren’t working for the students.

I was not about to get another poor evaluation, so I looked to my strengths and decided to transform the way I led the classes. I created jeopardy like-games and introduced interactive role playing.  They loved this — and stayed awake all the way through the course.  I got great results and was asked to help other Platoon Officers to do the same.  Grandma was silenced once more.

Over time, I began to own my leadership roles, gradually changing my feelings about speaking in public. Accordingly, I changed my actions to find a style that fit me and seemed to resonate with my audiences. What worked for me was NOT to memorize my speeches or training sessions; rather, to create an outline with key points and questions to guide me through the subject matter without being rigidly fixed to a script. 

As a result, I regularly received standing ovations and top marks on evaluations. My participants learned how to prepare to step into their career with confidence, and benefited from the power, strength, and leadership I clearly demonstrated. 

I had finally overcome my fears and rebuilt my life.

”Be Careful What You Say…”

My grandmother likely never really knew the devastating effect her judgmental words had on me. Nor do I believe she meant to hurt me. I have been able to turn this traumatic experience into an important lesson that has made my life better, so I’m grateful to her for that.

What I also know now in my own relationships is: “Be careful what you say. You can say something hurtful in ten seconds, but ten years later, the wounds are still there.” (Joel Osteen)

I have been more mindful of my words with my daughters, as well as in my professional relationships.

The Power of Your Words as a Leader

Especially as a leader, you find that people will hang on your every word, seek your approval, want to learn from you and follow you. Your influence as a leader is a large responsibility, and your words can either build up others, or tear them down.

Danny Iny, writing for Inc.com, offers five simple yet powerful words to use that will have a positive effect on the listener and help you become a more effective leader:

#1 “And:”  An inclusive word. It expands, it joins, it connects. Using “and” instead of “or” shows that you recognize there are possibilities and options, and invite your people in to explore those.

#2 “Why:” A powerful word to ask yourself so you can learn and expand your knowledge; and also powerful to use with others, to learn more about them and their ideas which will contribute to solutions and positive change.

#3 “Tell me more:” I train my leaders to build deep relationships with their team members, by listening carefully and being curious about them as individuals. This prompt encourages them to engage with you. It shows that you are seeking understanding and connection. It also is a good way to gently encourage people to explain their ideas to a group.

#4 “Whether:” We often get caught up in the “how” of doing something without stopping to think “whether” it is the best thing we could be doing. This is an important question to ask to make sure your person/team has a clear understanding of what they expect to gain from doing the thing they’re proposing.

#5  “What do you think we should do?”:  This question is a golden nugget for any leader who wants to delegate, engage and build a relationship with their people. Rather than finding their solutions for them, ask this question; it empowers them to work things out on their own, and to own their results. And, you might hear a great new idea that you hadn’t thought of!  

Taking a leadership role brings you more power to influence than you might have imagined. Your people – whether employees, team, troops, volunteers, family members, supporters, or community – are looking to you, and your words, for their inspiration and North Star. 

I encourage you to stand up and speak out, finding (as I did) your own strengths in communicating authentically and effectively! Practice these tips, and continue your leadership learning to build deeper and more dynamic relationships.  One powerful way to build those skills, as well as receive personal mentoring and support, is through my Awaken the Leader online series which is launching soon. Keep an eye out for my announcements, or visit our website to find out if it’s a fit for you.

Linda Patten is a Leadership Trainer for women entrepreneurs and change-makers. Her vision for every woman is to become the natural leader she is meant to be, through teaching an empowering mindset, masculine AND feminine leadership skills, and how to activate a vision into a full-bodied business or social change movement.