Chapter Five The Eight Most Frequent Mistakes People Make in Front of Crowds and Cameras Mistake 1: Underestimating the Importance of Public Speaking to Your Career A retail executive had been promoted to CFO. She had a strong financial background and a seventeen-year track record. She had earned the CEO’s respect for her candor and hard work. However, because she’d been overseas for several years, she didn’t know her U.S. colleagues well. In the first weeks in her new stateside position, she uncovered problems in her operation and quietly went to work. She was not someone who sought the limelight or asked for help. She also avoided making presentations and was quiet in meetings unless someone asked her a question. While that approach may have worked for her in the past, it was about to backfire now. Senior leaders in this particular organization expected to help each other by sharing information. E-mails leaked out about her problematic operational situation, and the senior team confronted her. The CEO scheduled a meeting, and she was asked to make a PowerPoint presentation. A crisis is no time to learn how to make a good presentation. The new executive not only had to put together her slides and prepare her talk but also knew she had to get ready to face some tough questions. Fortunately, she pulled a lot of people in to help. She practiced and prepared. She delivered a decent presentation. And she learned an important lesson. “It took seven years off my life,” she said. “I realized this is something I should have learned a long time ago.” Don’t wait−your time will come. If you want to lead the company, you should never underestimate the importance of public speaking. You will be judged by the way you handle the hot seat. The judgment day isn’t six months before they decide to make you CEO. Judgment days happen all along the way. Be ready long before you have to be ready. Mistake 2: “Winging” Important Speeches, Presentations, or Media Interviews A top division president in a large company was regarded as the number one candidate in the CEO succession plan. In three years, he would have the opportunity to take over a great company. He had run several of the company’s divisions and earned the respect of his subordinates as well as his colleagues and boss. One day, he was asked to give a presentation to the company’s entire leadership group. He was busy with several other business issues and put little time into the presentation, figuring he could wing it. He knew everything there was to know about the business and often gave employee presentations. What did he really need to do to prepare? The presentation was poor−meandering and disjointed. He annoyed the rest of the group. They liked him but wondered whether his inability to focus and make a clear presentation was a sign he was not up to the job of CEO. The company’s head of professional development put him into coaching with my firm, and we tried scheduled one session. However, after the first session, he found reason after reason to cancel the second. We didn’t see him again. Winging a presentation is a bad idea most of the time. Not many people can do it. Even if you are comfortable in front of an audience, your presentation must be organized, and your points must be crisp. Don’t get me wrong: there are times and places when you have to or should wing it. You should be good on your feet, but you should never go into a formal presentation without preparation. You should think about what you want to say, prepare, and practice. At the CEO level, clarity is king. Respect yourself and your audience by taking time to think it through before you get there. Mistake 3: Leaving It All to the Speechwriters When a Wall Street executive became president of his college, he hired a talented speechwriter to join his staff. Her first project was the new president’s inaugural address to faculty, alumni, students, family, and friends. This speech would not only launch his term as president but also set a new direction for the college. Since he was not a traditional academic, this speech was even more important. The first version of the speech was a good overview of the history and tradition of the school. The writer had done an excellent job of stating the accolades the school had received, the school’s strengths, and some of the blueprints for future development. However, as we sat back and listened to the president read this speech, his speechwriter and I realized something was missing. What was missing was the president himself. He was not in his own speech. We weren’t learning why he was there, what made him tick, or what were his personal reasons for taking this important job. The speechwriter and I decided to go back to the drawing board, turn on the tape recorder, and interview the president. Among the many things we learned was that although he had graduated from the college and served on the board, he had not been an A student. In fact, he joked that he had been an average student at best. We decided that a personal fact wasn’t just an aside−it was an opportunity to connect with the audience. Tapping into his genuine humility and humor helped us craft the opening few remarks in a whole new way. We would not hide the fact that he wasn’t an academic−we would highlight it to help him connect with the audience and be himself. If you can hire a good speechwriter, you should. Good speechwriters are invaluable. Every CEO needs someone inside or outside the organization to help with the sheer volume of presentations that are on the calendar. It’s good to find someone who thinks the way you do and who understands your philosophy and values, as well as your pace, rhythm, timing, and unique way of expression. But you will always give a better speech if you work with the speechwriter to make it yours. Make it a point to be in your own speeches, and don’t expect other people to dig it up. Give the access. Answer questions. Offer ideas. Get involved. You will get what you deserve: a speech that sounds as if it’s coming from you. Mistake 4: Not Answering the Question In 2002, in a contentious debate with her Republican opponent for governor of Massachusetts, Democrat Shannon O’Brien drove the audience crazy . . . and not in a good way. As the Boston Globe reported, “O’Brien seemed to be unwilling or unable to answer a question about whether, if elected, she would veto a large tax increase.” The newspaper quoted voters who were watching on television monitors with the reporter from the newspaper. They were exasperated: “ ‘She doesn’t want to answer it!’ Todd King, a recently laid−off biotech worker, said to the television. ‘I don’t think she’s answered one question yet,’ agreed Heather Lee, 27, a Libertarian. ‘She’s still not answering!’ King exclaimed a few minutes later.” By contrast, undecided voters said the opponent, Mitt Romney, answered all the questions, and “all the dirty laundry she tried to hang, he basically cleared it all up,” according to one. The media polls began to turn after that debate. Republican Mitt Romney won the race, despite the fact that the vast majority of Massachusetts’s voters are liberal and tend to be either Democrats or independents. You need to answer the questions. Answer honestly, even if it’s not what everyone wants to hear. Candor is essential to leadership whether you are running for office or running a company. Take tough questions head on. Earn the respect of your audience, even if you know they will disagree with you. One of the best and most often quoted movie lines ever written was spoken by Jack Nicholson’s character, Colonel Nathan Jessup, in A Few Good Men: “You can’t handle the truth!” But I will respectfully disagree. People can handle the truth. Not answering the question is a surefire way to get into hot water. Mistake 5: Forgetting the Audience I was called to jury duty on a day in May that happened to be National Law Day. A court officer briefed the jury pool on the selection process and then herded us into a large courtroom across the street. Law Day ceremonies were getting under way, and we were not given a choice: we had to attend. Yet, as we filed in, we found there were few open seats because “honored guests” and school students were there. Someone finally brought in some makeshift chairs for two hundred of us in the back of the room. One court clerk actually suggested that I stand for the next hour, but I insisted on having a chair. For ninety minutes, the ceremony dragged on. The chief justice of the trial court, the Law Day Committee members, the chair of the House Ways and Means in the Senate, and others all had a turn to pontificate on the importance of Law Day. Each of these speakers acknowledged everyone in the room−judges, legislators, administrators, and students− except us. Not a single one mentioned us. While those who were acknowledged were either students or paid to be there, the jury pool of businesspeople and citizens were taking time from their jobs and their lives, and not one speaker had the courtesy to even thank us for attending. You cannot speak and be lacking in common courtesy. You must never, ever forget your audience. Your audience has given up time to sit and hear you talk. You cannot give them back their time. You can only thank them for giving it up and make it worth their while. As a speaker, you have an obligation to use their time well. Focus on your audience. Whether you’re speaking to colleagues, customers, or employees, think about them before you write the first word of your speech. In the case of employees, remember that your company is paying them to be there and that time is valuable. If you waste your employees’ time, you waste your resources. You can’t afford to let that happen. The best way to make sure you remember the audience is to find out what they want to know. Make a call, talk to some people who know the audience, and learn how your talk could be valuable to them. Do your homework and you will be appreciated for valuing your listeners’ time and making the event worthwhile. Mistake 6: Blowing the Easy Questions Ted Kennedy blew the interview of his presidential campaign when Roger Mudd asked, “Why are you running for president?” Many people are least prepared for the first slam-dunk question. As a television host, I would sometimes start interviews by saying, “Tell me about your book,” and then I’d watch knowledgeable experts stumble through the first response. You must be ready for the easy, obvious questions. Think about what they will be, and prepare an answer so you get started on the right foot. You may need to bring someone else in to remind you what the obvious questions will be, someone who knows the audience or media outlet. Then, once you have the questions in mind, come up with the big answer. Keep it simple. Don’t overwhelm them with detail. No one wants to know how the watch is made; all that matters is that it works. If you’re ready for the easy questions, the hard ones will go a whole lot better. Mistake 7: Not Knowing When to Hold ’em and When to Fold ’em Teresa Heinz Kerry was supporting her husband, John Kerry, on the presidential campaign trail and was invited to accept an award from a women’s political organization. She was briefed several times by her staff that the organization wanted a short talk−no more than seven to eight minutes. The awards ceremony included six other winners, a reception, and a dinner where she would speak. But the staff was reportedly concerned because Teresa Heinz Kerry was notorious for going long. Sure enough, in spite of the admonitions from her staff, she came to the podium−after 8:30 on a weeknight−and spoke for forty minutes. Her meandering talk, punctuated by whispers and flips of the bangs in her face, had glimmers of interesting topics, but no focus. The audience practically stampeded to the doors. How do you quit while you’re ahead? First, time your speech by standing up and delivering it−not by sitting and reading, which takes less time. When you get into the room, be ready to improvise. Tune in to the crowd. If your sixth sense tells you that you have been up there too long, you probably have. Pay attention if someone approaches the podium and starts to give you the eye. Few people will criticize you for giving a speech that is too short. Mistake 8: Forgetting the Humor Humor is an integral part of public speaking when you are a CEO. Humor loosens up the audience and gives you the opportunity to connect as a real person. The audience doesn’t expect you to be David Letterman; you just need to have a little fun and connect with them. Speaking is a lot like horse racing−you have to get off to a good start. Don’t forget the humor. You don’t have to be brilliant. Audiences want to laugh, and they want to have fun. Don’t be afraid to give humor a try. Fortunately for you, the mistakes in this chapter have already been made! Now you have the chance to learn from them. But keep in mind that nobody’s perfect−everyone makes mistakes. The key is to identify the lesson in every mistake. You don’t have to be a perfect speaker to be successful, but you do have to be prepared.