When Maurice Sendak died earlier this month, he left us more than his wonderful children's stories. He left us some lessons in how leaders communicate.
Consider Where the Wild Things Are and that book's young hero, Max. Both have much to teach us about how to connect with others and lead.
Most obviously, the story highlights the persuasive power of eye contact coupled with a focused message.
As you may recall, little Max misbehaved. And no sooner was he sent to his bedroom than he set off on a fantastic journey to a "place where the wild things are." When he arrived, the "wild things" were living up to their name. Specifically, "they roared their terrible roars and gnashed their terrible teeth and rolled their terrible eyes and showed their terrible claws."
Sounds like a meeting I was in earlier this week. Several executives went on the attack regarding where to go with a particular presentation. I became quite uncomfortable as one executive tried to justify his position.
The defensive executive would have done well to heed how Max calmed the wild things.
The boy said "BE STILL!" And then he "tamed them with the magic trick of staring into all their yellow eyes without blinking once ..."
So if you want to calm the wild things at your next meeting, follow Max's example and remember that a tight message conveys confidence and is persuasive. "Here are the three reasons why we need to focus on these issues," you say -- then hit your messages quickly and stop.
Just as important, remember how Max delivered his message, with the confident energy that comes with strong eye contact.
The boy also gives us a nice little lesson in leadership. Once he wins over the "wild things" he immediately sets the agenda.
"'And now,' cried Max, 'let the wild rumpus start.'" And the party started.
It's a nice reminder that public speaking and communication are about building relationships and moving people to action. We don't speak because we're trying to be fabulous. It's about moving our listeners in a direction, even if that direction is nothing more than creating a "wild rumpus."
Finally, Where the Wild Things Are should remind us of the importance of courage and point of view.
Maurice Sendak's children's stories constituted a unique vision and new direction for bedtime stories.
"Max and the Wild Things ushered in a new era in children's literature," Kathleen Horning, director of the Cooperative Children's Book Center at the University of Wisconsin School of Education in Madison, told The Christian Science Monitor. "For the first time, authors and illustrators began to show young children the world as it really is, rather than how some adults in charge thought it ought to be."
Similarly, the best communicators have a point of view and the courage to say it. Do you think that the $10 million the company invested in an enterprise software system has been a waste of money? Do you have the courage to say so clearly and support your point? Or are you just going to meekly lay out a few facts and hope that the audience reaches its own conclusion?
Take a lesson from Max and Maurice Sendak. Don't be afraid to look the wild things in their yellow eyes and tell them to "BE STILL."
Joey Asher is president of Speechworks, a selling and communication skills coaching company in Atlanta. He has worked with thousands of business people helping them learn how to communicate in a way that connects with clients. His new book, 15 Minutes Including Q&A: A Plan to Save the World from Lousy Presentations, is available now. He is also the author of three previous books, including How to Win a Pitch: The Five Fundamentals That Will Distinguish You from the Competition; Selling and Communication Skills for Lawyers; and Even a Geek Can Speak. He can be reached at 404-266-0888 or firstname.lastname@example.org.