Leaders: when others go bland, go bold!

Years ago, I heard a piece of acting advice that has stuck with me ever since: the rule of thumb when performing for TV – where the shots are wider screens smaller – is to exaggerate the emotions. Big facial features. Loud laughing or sobbing. Basically, anything that would look absurd at a dinner party. The idea is that anything less pointed will simply get missed by the viewer.

It’s why non-actors who appear on screen can seem so wooden: they’re just acting normal in an environment that’s unforgiving of normal behaviour.

Now, I’m not an actor, so I can’t speak to whether it’s sound advice or not. But it occasionally does come to mind in my work as a communications expert.

We’ve all been there: we come up with a fantastic quote, a talk track or message that resonates with the brand AND that speaks to an issue that actually matters to people. It’s a chance to step up, stand out and be heard. We pull together the first draft. It’s proud, bold and ready for the stage.

That’s about when the slow process of watering down begins. A comment here, a strikeout there, a meeting with nervous looks and comments, and more adjustments. Next thing you know, you’re left with something that’s a masterpiece of committee thinking. It’s nice. Informative, even. And a far cry from the bold, original thinking that that originally gave birth to it.

It’s what sports coaches call trying really hard not to lose, as opposed to trying to win.

I get that companies and executives can only go so far. No one wants to risk offense, or to over-promise.  After all, it can go sideways, fast. I’ll also admit that I’ve done my share of watering down in my day. But just look at which CEOs Fortune 500 leaders look up to. Many say things that raise eyebrows, or speak very directly, or sound unlike what we envision a corporate executive to be. No damage done, apparently!

Watering down, on the other hand, can harm your brand – especially in a crisis. One of the big errors of the whole United Airlines debacle was a misplaced attempt to use watered down language when something much more authentic, emotive and direct was called for. Sometimes you just have to be bold and direct to make an impact, and to live up to the situation or issue you’re facing.

It’s not about being provocative just to get attention, or ratcheting up the intensity to 10. Just make a commitment to be a bit more forthright, to speak a bit more clearly, to be bolder wherever and however you can. If you feel that nagging voice saying “this is boring” then, likely, is.

So instead, try taking it up, not down, a notch. You may make the kind of impression you’re aiming for.