Style & Substance – Communicating with Your Own Voice

Have you ever appreciated what someone had to say despite her unappealing tone? Ever listened to someone drone on for no real reason just because his voice was pleasant? Chances are you’ve tolerated either a bad presentation or dull content because you liked either the message or the messenger.

I’m willing to bet that each of us has tried to lead a conversation that wasn’t successful because of some glitch in either our content or delivery. I noticed this conflict of style and substance most recently in an unexpected place: a yoga class.

I’ve been practicing Bikram yoga for 14 years and have had the good luck to have studied with some really gifted and competent teachers including Bikram Choudury himself.

Bikram is a very strong personality. He is forceful, funny, overtly directive, bossy, sometimes crass, occasionally caustic, and always encouraging. He can be all of these things simultaneously because that is who he is – sincerely. He communicates with his class fluidly in his melodic, quick and loud Indian accent. His leadership style is as unique as a fingerprint.

As with many charismatic leaders, his uniqueness also makes him someone whom it is tempting to imitate. The rhythm of his tone and cadence can help new yoga instructors get through leading a 90-minute yoga class in a 104-degree yoga studio. But there comes a point when imitation begins to compromise a new leader’s own voice. I suspect this problem surfaces at different times for instructors:  the point when they either discover that the style of their guru is now longer needed to aid development of their own voice, or when they are losing their followers because their style as messenger is getting in the way of the message.

That’s what happened to me in class this week – the messenger’s well-intentioned imitation of his guru got in the way of my getting the message of the class.

The instructor this week has been teaching for only a few months, but I found myself resenting his bossy and almost autocratic tone. His criticism of students seemed caustic and out of place. He was unwaveringly dogmatic about his instruction despite good questions from students, and I soon found myself wanting to incorporate The Bird in into every one of my yoga postures.

And then I heard the instructor – really heard him. He is a new leader and new to discovering his leading voice. He was trying to use Bikram’s dynamic (and sometimes incensing) style as his own. But one leader cannot be another – especially when one leader’s style is so dependent on a very unique personality. Bikram can be autocratic because he is also simultaneously compassionate – sincerely and without effort because it is his own true style. Instructors who try to emulate him fail because there is a disingenuous aspect of their actions. It is that unintended falsehood that gets in the way of an instructor really connecting with a class.  It is the insincerity of a leader’s voice – even if it is not intended to deceive – that inhibits connection between leader and follower.

Where do leaders of all types do this? Any of us who try to lead a group face the challenge of finding our own voices and styles. We may try to replicate the style of a leader we admire and sound like we’re trying too hard. We may fear imitating and sound completely lifeless instead. We may get so wrapped-up in the content of what we are saying that we forget to be conscious of the fact that there are actual people who are trying to listen to what we have to say. Somewhere in this process of trying to find a way to communicate, we can become trapped by either the substance or style of what we are trying to say.

The tricky part of communication is that we need to have both style and substance to be successful in connecting with others.

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