Communication should be measured less by what you say and more by what is heard. The greatest idea on earth is of no value if no one can understand or communicate it. Talk as much as you like, but if the message is not getting through, then you are not actually communicating. Too often leaders say 'message delivered', without checking or doing everything they can to ensure 'message received'. It is your responsibility as a leader to get your message understood, not the listener’s to understand it. For this to happen you cannot simply rely on just your natural or preferred communication style.

The single biggest problem with communication is the illusion that it has taken place.
— George Bernard Shaw

There is no doubt that we are living in a noisy time. Lots of people want to be heard and they are shouting for attention. Great leaders are able to separate the signal from all this noise. They do this by balancing the way they communicate between three different modes – tell, show, and ask.

By contrast most leaders limit themselves to whatever mode they naturally happen to be good at. Why is this a problem? Isn’t it good to be communicating predominantly in the mode that you’re strongest in?

The short answer is no. You miss out on two big opportunities if you only communicate through one channel. Firstly, depending on which mode you favour, you’ll be limiting either your reach, your audience’s engagement, or their understanding. Secondly, some people just don’t respond to a particular mode. Some people don’t like reading. Others can’t concentrate to listen. If you’re only communicating in one way, you’re unlikely to be cutting through.


The greatest idea on earth is of no value if no one can understand or communicate it.

If you want to be a great leader, you need to be aware of what comes naturally to you, what doesn’t, and commit to developing to become a well-rounded leader. This Talking Point is about that awareness.

Leaders need to be world-class communicators. They need to be black belts in tongue fu — the communication art of telling, showing and asking. Leaders require both flexibility and capability in equal doses. They need to develop a broad capability to communicate in the various required situations, and they also need to be able to shift how they are communicating as required. Great leaders balance their tell, show and ask.

Tell is the domain of authors and orators. It is the act of spreading a message widely, raising awareness and assembling a tribe behind the cause. Show is the act of educating and enlightening, and is the domain of the great teachers. It is the process that enables learning and growth. Ask is the ability to make space for the audience to make their own enquiry. Mastery of this capability allows the audience to develop a deep understanding of the subject.

Too often leaders say 'message delivered', without checking or doing everything they can to ensure 'message received'.

Each on their own is powerful, albeit with limitations. It is when the three are combined together that great leadership is born. In Thought Leaders, we work across six delivery modes, two for each of Tell, Show, Ask. Each of these has a different focus, and a different question or pathway that it leads the audience down.


Author — strategy

Your first job as a leader is to understand and create a plan for achieving the organisation’s goals. This first dimension is hardly ever a solo pursuit, but it is the responsibility of the senior leader to author, craft and design a compelling plan for achieving some desired future. This first skill answers the question ‘Tell us how will we get where we are going?’

Speaker — leadership

It’s important that leaders share their vision for the organisation with others. To do this well they need to be able to communicate ideas simply and in a way that inspires others, regardless of the complexity involved in the organisation’s path. This is about weaving stories and examples of the milestones and next steps required to move forward to progress the organisation’s goals. It is essentially answering the question ‘Tell us where are we going?’

Mentor — potential

If leadership is about bringing out the greatness in others then mentoring is the conduit for that function. Mentoring is essentially about knowledge sharing—it’s about utilising experience. To do this well, the knowledge in key people is captured, packaged and delivered to others. Mentoring is about answering the question ‘Who will lead us in the future?’

Trainer — capability

It is not the leader’s role to develop capability in others, but it is their responsibility. Essentially leaders need people around them who are capable of making well-informed decisions. This often requires embracing new knowledge or effectively upgrading existing knowledge. The leader needs to know the gaps and get help to plug them. Learning and development is a leadership tool—too often it’s delegated at both a strategic and an operational level. A leader should, by all means, have others work out a plan, but the reasons for the plan and its direction are not up to others. It is a form of resourcing and it answers the request ‘Can you help us where we need it?’

Coach — empowerment

You can’t be everywhere and you can’t do everything. This simple idea is what lies beneath the leadership coaching function. Coaching is about empowering others; it’s about replacing fear with confidence; and it’s about enabling a group to solve problems in a future that has not been experienced yet—solving problems with no precedents. Coaching as an idea answers the often unasked but implicit question ‘Can you help us believe it’s possible?’

Facilitator — engagement

Driving a sense of ownership and the desire to work with initiative and autonomy is critical to organisational growth. The best-laid plan will go awry if people don’t feel that they understand it and their role in it. Facilitation is about creating alignment between departments and divisions. It’s also about creating an environment in which people see how their desires, goals and values match those of the group and their colleagues, and the organisation as a whole. Without this a leader’s ambitions are unsustainable and are unlikely to be realised in a fast changing world.

Tongue fu is the martial art of great leaders, but instead of kicking, throwing and punching, we are telling, showing and asking. Get good at each domain and increase your influence.



Download a free sample chapter from Matt's latest book, Speakership.

Speakership is first among equals for its leveragability. Leaders create and share vision, and speakership is the missing link between strategy and execution in many organisations.