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She Knows How to Make Speeches Sing

Review of Business Rhetoric: How to Turn Your Words Into Gold (2018; 175 pages).

Four years ago, at the Professional Speechwriters Association’s inaugural meeting at New York University, Mette Højen gave a novel talk on what executive communicators can learn from musicians. A corporate communications advisor based in Copenhagen, Denmark who has studied rhetoric and music, Højen provided the PSA audience with both inspiration and out-of-the-box thinking. (This reviewer remembers her presentation, and very much enjoyed it.)

Business Rhetoric, Højen’s new book of tips, tricks and exercises for those who want to improve their leadership communication skills, expands on some of the themes of that 2014 talk.

The book highlights how the need “to convince other people and convey a message” is universal, whatever sector of the economy in which one works. Højen also points to how the “rhetorical performances” that take place in corporate settings—speeches, sales presentations and so on—can be improved via insights derived from the world of musical performance.

Højen allows that this may appear to be a “paradox.” She explains that while musical performance is perceived as a “soft” world, while business and executive leadership communication represent a supposedly “hard” reality in comparison, it’s the musicians and conductors who are “judged much, much harder” than any CEO or senior executive, at least when it comes to the impression they create with audiences.

She further observes how musicians are held to very high expectations around “discipline, training, collaboration and communicating a vision,” even by non-musicians. Almost anyone can recognize when a note is played off-key, for example (even if one’s musical training ends somewhere after “Do-Re-Mi”).

But people usually do not, as Højen writes, bring “the same ruthless focus” to bear when judging speeches in the workplace—even if we regularly endure keynotes, panels, townhalls and other “communication” exercises that sink without a trace, failing to make a single lasting impression.

Højen’s book provides a roadmap for those who want to avoid playing bum notes in their next corporate rhetorical performance. This book will help presenters and speakers think beyond their scripts and talking points, to topics such as physical settings, the need to outline any remarks in advance and how one needs to practice, practice, practice all aspects of performance to deliver a speech well. (That includes advice on breathing, body language, controlling any nervousness and so on.)

The emphasis on practice and preparation reflects Højen’s musical background. Her formal background in rhetoric comes through in the book’s insistence that speakers anticipate the counter-arguments to whatever actions or decisions their remarks are intended to advance, and reference those counter-arguments in their speeches.

While trying to shift an audience from one point of view to another on some issue, Højen observes, a speaker will fail by merely overloading an audience with information. Persuading others through a speech requires engaging with the objections some in the audience may have to what the presenter is proposing, and gently refuting the naysayers’ arguments.

In politics and in law, this all standard—but in corporate settings, particularly when employees are the audience, many senior leaders see persuasion as an alarmingly high-stakes proposition (or perhaps a pointless chore—“I’m the boss, aren’t I?”).

Rather than readily addressing objections and disarming them, the people at the top of the corporate hierarchy may prefer to play it safe, rely on their positional authority and emit “an overwhelming number of empty words,” as Højen writes, leaving listeners cold and unresponsive.

Højen’s timely book is as much a call for rhetorical courage as it is a collection of very useful advice. And as she shows, exercising courage is just like playing an instrument or learning a particular piece of music—and becomes easier the more you are willing to practice it.

You can learn more about Mette Højen via http://businessrhetoric.com/.