Presentations: Good leaders can’t afford bad speeches: Happy holidays
I once facilitated a presentation by BB&T Bank CEO John Allison to MBA students at Wake Forest University where he effortlessly opined on the economy and finance. He breezed easily understood through complex topics. And without a speech! Afterward I turned to friend and professor Ram Baliga and remarked, “He was amazing.” Ram said, “What do you expect, he’s a CEO.” You can’t lead without being a good communicator.
After working with many executives and senior teams over the last dozen years I believe most are like Allison although he is one of the best: smart, savvy, and with insight they can relate for minutes or hours without notes. After all, they live it and must sell it. It’s like sports legend Red Smith said about good writing, “All you do is sit down at a typewriter and open a vein.” Leaders too rise to the top through sharp decision-making and communication that pours from their veins.
So, having said that, will someone please explain to me why so many of these talented folks give awful speeches? With a few notable exceptions, there is simply no excuse. Why do such capable leaders who can motivate scores, if not thousands, smother their personalities beneath lecterns and sheaves of papers? They disserve their audiences and themselves.
I recently saw a charming leader of passion and knowledge shrink an outgoing personality to the size of words on a written page. The speaker tried to give it life, but mostly read sentence after sentence for more than 15 minutes. As I sat there, I sensed the prepared presentation was hogtying an otherwise delightful motivator. My intuition proved correct when the speech ended and questions came. (Incidentally, the best part of the written presentation, compelling examples of points just made, came at the end of the speech, not the beginning.) When the speaker finally left the confining words and adlibbed answers it was like a jail door opened. Enthusiasm, mental agility, vision, and insight rolled like a river. It could have rolled much sooner without a bridling text. In retrospect, the speech had been like a Ferrari on idle. The unfettered Q&A was like the accelerator had been floored. A huge difference.
There are legitimate excuses for top performers to stick to scripts. If they are running public companies they have to watch what they say. If they are speaking to a significant audience on an august occasion, a university commencement for example, then they want to make hopefully timeless remarks with precision. Fine. Sometimes too, incredibly busy leaders just simply don’t have or won’t take the time to work on a speech. They’ll ask an associate to write it, they’ll read it, and hurry back to the office.
As John Allison proved in my opening paragraph it does not have to be like that. I think that some leaders need to rethink the importance of cutting themselves loose from the old ways of looking at speeches as droning read-a-thons, and embrace the power of minimally-scripted presentations. It is rather easily learned and done. They need to realize they have between their ears a quality of thought and communication that most people covet and they are not taking advantage of it.
So, if you are one of the myriad script-bound leaders, I invite you to let go. Trust your communication talents. If you think about it, you probably wouldn’t be where you are without them. Share them with the rest of us. Persuade us, motivate us, move us. If that doesn’t encourage you, then reflect on how you look as we in the audience watch your Ferrari run on idle.