Simply Said
Simply Said
Simply Said is the essential handbook for business communication.

The Big Cheese

05-01-2002

Senior executives can't afford to have presentations skills that stink, but many do. Here's how to meet the challenge and come out smelling like a leader.

No matter the company, the people at the top are different — sort of. Their skills, knowledge and talents have put them in positions to lead and inspire, but that doesn't mean they can or will. And although the biggest cheeses usually get a hefty salary, a nice office and a competent staff, they aren't immune to the most common challenges of presenting: anxiety, lack of preparation time, nervous tics, off-message rambling and misreading an audience.

In fact, many top executives tread these familiar waters — and rougher presentation seas — precisely because they are captain of the ship.With the responsibility of leadership comes inflated expectations, even more pressure to perform well, and serious consequences if they misspeak, look bad or represent the company poorly in public.

The view from the top

Look at it from a CEO's perspective. How would you feel if every word you spoke was scrutinized by hundreds of people, became the subject of endless water-cooler speculation? If one poorly-phrased statement could send the firm's stock price spiraling clownward or wreak havoc on employee morale?

Like all presenters, top executives have a range of presentation skills, from excellent to terrible. But unlike a botched presentation from an average presenter, one from a senior executive can have long-term consequences that last months, even years. Million-dollar business deals, media dogfights, tough business
challenges and professional reputations have all been won or lost solely on a senior executive's presentation skills.

The brave new executive

Most top executives recognize that this sort of pressure comes with the big office and the personal parking space. However, those who coach executives say, many people who aspire to the upper echelons of business underestimate the importance continuing presentation-skills development has on their ability to lead, their effectiveness in the trenches and the arc of their career — indeed, their legacy.

"If business communication has always been important, then it's even more so today," says Peter Giuliano, founder and chairman of the Executive Communications Group, based in Englewood, N.J. "Good business communication cannot be done on the fly or with any level of carelessness," says Giuliano, partly because one of the downsides to today's media-saturated world is that almost every word and gesture does have the potential to magnify itself. "Some executives still live under a delusion that what they say to an intimate group will remain private, but with the way communication has changed, this is no longer the case," he says. These days, an off-the-cuff comment or seemingly insignificant aside can travel from the intranet to the Internet and eventually to shareholders or the media, all in a matter of minutes.

Does success breed contempt?

Still, many top executives slog through their day-to-day duties without paying much attention to their presentation skills, and in the process sometimes set themselves up for failure or disappointment. Those who work in the cottage industry of executive coaching say that one of most insidious obstacles to presentation improvement at this level is a lack of self-awareness borne of the very success that brought an executive to the top.

According to Merna Skinner, a partner and consultant at New York City-based Exec/Comm, "Many executives say, 'I know my business and I know my content, just put some words in front of me and I'll be fine.' In  reality, it's rare to meet an individual who can do presentations cold and still deliver."

Most coaches agree that lack of preparation time is the most common culprit when it comes to executivepresentation pitfalls. When commitments clash, preparation for a speech that's days or weeks away is easy to put on the back burner — but it shouldn't be, Skinner says. What need to change are the executive's planning habits and sense of priority. The best way to make that happen, she says, is to remind them of the cost of failure: "When you do a poor job communicating, it hurts your reputation and credibility. It also hurts the company's credibility and reputation ... and you might not be given a second chance."

Who's out there, anyway?

The problem isn't always lack of time, though. An executive presenter may be well rehearsed, polished and confident, but halfway through might still feel as though the audience isn't paying attention or getting the message. According to presentation expert Tony Jeary, situations like this don't come about because of a lack of practice, they happen because the executive has violated the second deadly sin of executive presenters — not knowing who is in the audience.

Jeary, who bills himself as Mr. Presentation, recently wrote the book Speaking From the Top, aimed at senior executives who need to hone their presentation skills. Among the many challenges Jeary addresses is the executive's need for a team of individuals to rely on not only to design slides and make sure the TelePrompTer works, but to research who's in the audience. "There could be vendors from the outside, internal staff, stockholders, the media. There could be analysts, or employees from a sister company," he points out.

It's not always easy to craft a message that will ring true with five or six different groups at once, Jeary says, or to deliver a message people may not want to hear. Still, an effort must be made to learn about the audience members and their expectations. "There is a real need to look at all the different audience types
and work toward a message that meets all the audience's objectives," he says. Neglect this step and you risk miscommunication, or worse, alienating the audience.

The Executive Group's Peter Giuliano recalls a group of executives who had spent weeks preparing to present as a team to employees. All were polished and presented their points well. Still, Giuliano watched audience members leave the room "befuddled, confused and even angry." The employees' reactions took the executives by surprise. Says Giuliano, "They were shocked. They had worked so hard to prepare, but they had forgotten a key point — the audience."

Giuliano counsels clients to speak to the audience's needs rather than their own. The trap executives get into too often is that their presentation is delivered from the speaker's perspective of what the audience needs to know. "As a result," Giuliano says, "it doesn't speak to audience members' comfort level, their fears, their objectives, their emotional state. So it's important to frame the message for the audience."

To find this elusive comfort level, Giuliano advises developing a network of people with different points of view who can provide valuable clues about what a given audience is thinking. "This network feeds us with what people are feeling, so the speaker can address those things, actually bringing these people into the communication process." Inside a company, this form of networking can be as easy as maintaining regular contact with employees at all levels; outside one's own company, however, it requires some initiative on the speaker's part to contact people who will be in the audience.

Ask for help

Peter Giuliano's networking principles and Tony Jeary's team strategies do more than address audience issues, they impress upon executives that important speeches are not projects they should tackle alone. When it comes to key presentations, there is no shame in asking for help.

Jeary's book details how teams can work together to ensure that an executive has everything she needs, from a well-developed script to professionally created and choreographed multimedia. "Most leaders rarely use all  the talent and resources available to them within their own organizations," Jeary explains. But a team is only  as good as its leadership, and that comes from the executives themselves. Staying in touch with team  members throughout the creation process is vital, he says. Executives who think they can jump in at the last minute and expect everything to be perfect are fooling themselves.

The telltale heart

An executive can know a subject cold, use the latest technology with ease, and marshal a crack team to create a flawless presentation, but may still be challenged by the age-old enemy of presenters — anxiety.

"Speaking anxiety doesn't go away as you move up the ladder," says Giuliano. "Can you imagine how many times a minute [Hewlett-Packard CEO] Carly Fiorina's heart beats compared with yours or mine?" If anything, the constant scrutiny and high-stakes nature of executive presentations can generate as much or more anxiety than the average person experiences.

According to Giuliano, the first line of defense for anxiety is the one some executives fight the most — rehearsal. "Many resist the need to rehearse, under the foolish notion that it will sound fresh if they don't. Instead, it just opens them up for unknown possibilities."

Exec/Comm's Merna Skinner also stresses the need for executives to rehearse. "Practice helps presenters feel more comfortable with the visual mechanics and other pieces of the presentation," she says.

Skinner advises her clients to do three types of practices. The first should get the presenter used to reading the words with the medium he will use to present, be it a script, TelePrompTer or scrolling screen. This allows the executive to find out if his words feel natural. The second time through is to practice for pausing, pacing and punching the correct words. The final run-through should be practiced in the presentation's venue. This allows the presenter to familiarize himself with where he will stand, what the room looks like and how the multimedia or AV equipment will work.

Failure isn't an option

On the whole, the obstacles executive presenters face aren't too different from the challenges facing presenters at all levels of an organization. The primary difference is that the privilege of being a big cheese comes with inflated expectations, more pressure and higher risks. Failure isn't — or shouldn't be — an option.

One advantage most senior executives have over others, however, is access to resources that can help them develop the presentation skills they need. If they need to hire a speech consultant, they usually can. If they  need to put together a team to help them, they have the power to make it happen. If they need more time,  they can delegate responsibilities to get it.

In short, when it comes to presentation skills, the biggest difference between top executives and everyone else is that they have no excuse. Every organization has its share of big cheeses, but there's no reason their presentations have to smell like Limburger. With a little humility and help, every executive presentation can  be, ahem, Gouda.

By: Julie Hill

Julie Hill is managing editor of Presentations.

Reproduced with permission by VNU Business Publications, USA

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