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Enter, Stage Fright

Enter, Stage Fright

While many executive aptitudes fall in and out of vogue, the ability to explain an idea and inspire support is perennial. Motivating people with different interests to rally behind a common goal is a rare talent

The ability to intelligently articulate a strategy, an idea or a thought in a clear and engaging manner is an absolute must for CIOs. But when it comes to public speaking a great many CIOs in fact find themselves scared speechless.

One of the more curious entries in the Book of Lists, an almanac of random information and trivia first published in 1977, is a list of the 10 worst human fears. It starts with dogs and escalates through loneliness, flying, death, sickness, deep water, financial problems, insects and heights. Incredibly, the thing we fear most is speaking before a group.

Even Neil Armstrong.

The doyenne of celebrity speaking in Australia, Christine Maher, regards the former astronaut as one of the finest speakers in the world — a pioneer who went where no man had before. Yet he still gets nervous before he speaks in public. "I stood beside Neil once before he was going on and I asked him why he was so nervous," Maher says. "After all, here was a man brave enough to go to the moon in 1969. He said: 'When we went to the moon, there was only a 25 per cent chance we wouldn't come back.'"

The corporate world is not quite as dangerous, but climbing its ladder is easier for those who can hold an audience, whether it is a conference of their peers, in the boardroom, staff, the media or an AGM. Major appointments and career-defining projects involve instances where such greatness will be thrust upon you.

Is this reason enough for CIOs to improve their public speaking? Will superior speaking ability differentiate you from the next IT executive? Can such soft skills provide a hard edge?

While many executive aptitudes fall in and out of vogue, the ability to explain an idea and inspire support is perennial. Motivating people with different interests to rally behind a common goal is a rare talent. It involves managing change and calls for someone who is a mix of general, maestro, teacher, politician, evangelist - and storyteller. Powerful public speaking generates confidence and trust. It is a vital skill in the kit bag of any modern executive and has become one of the criteria for leadership in today's workplace.

And Australian executives are losing their modesty. The tall poppy syndrome does not stifle people any more because overseas executives have swelled the local pool of talent and helped change leadership culture.

A survey of CXOs earning more than $500,000 a year by a major executive search firm in the US asked these high achievers what contributed most to their success. Both men and women ranked communication skills as their number one attribute. [For a look at how local IT execs view communication skills as a top priority, see "Survival Skills" CIO November. - Ed] Any executive recruiter will say senior managers must have great communication skills. But public speaking for senior IT executives can be toughest of all, given that their home turf is that tricky area where technology meets business - a subject that moves constantly and is still beyond the reach of many. In a world where CIOs are forced to be more strategic than tactical and more corporate than technical, public speaking has become paramount.

But how do you make your successful CRM implementation sound riveting at a user conference? How do you convince a board of directors that doing more and more with less and less is not just about slashing the IT budget?

The public speaking coaches say you should simply tell a story, and they want to let you in on a secret: Great speakers are not born; they are made. Even the professionals need help and anyone can learn the basics.

You realise how competitive the international speaker's circuit has become when Fortune 500 companies in America hire Emmy Award-winning scriptwriters to craft executive presentations or employ seasoned Broadway actors to train them in theatre techniques to improve performance.

When questioned why they have not implemented public speaking programs for senior executives, most companies cite a lack of internal resources, no knowledge of where or how to start or an unfortunate experience in the past. Even so, many individual executives double their income by moonlighting as a speaker. It increases their standing among contemporaries and can lead to bigger career opportunities. Some CIOs already know that an attractive image not only makes it easier to recruit talented people to their IT department, but if the message is strong enough it can have a direct impact on their company's share price and leave a positive impression with their CEO.

You may be at a career stage where imparting what you know about the marriage of business and technology is a realistic way to achieve a sea change and earn a living on the professional speakers tour. Speakers at conferences, seminars and trade shows earn between $2000 and $10,000 for a half-day session. The superstar presenters pull up to $100,000 an appearance in the US and Europe.

Join the CIO Australia group on LinkedIn. The group is open to CIOs, IT Directors, COOs, CTOs and senior IT managers.

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