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

John Kolm has been speaking all his life. The former deputy CIO at the Employment Services Regulatory Authority and CIO of the City of Port Phillip has a take-no-prisoners attitude to public speaking. Now the co-owner of Team Results, a leadership training company, he says there are only two things that matter: Tell the truth and be yourself.

"People are not expecting you to be a polished performer, so take that pressure off yourself," Kolm says. "Don't be a polished performer. The less you try to be polished the more you will be. You'll come across as genuine. The best advice I ever got from my speaking agent was to be myself. I was told to never do one of those public speaking courses and the advice was right."

Kolm reasons that every communication we make is public speaking and the intention is always the same: to share a viewpoint. "What is the opposite of public speaking? Private speaking? Do we sit in a phone booth and talk to ourselves?" says Kolm.

"Any time we try to communicate something we are in the sales business. The only time there is a no sale is when the communication is cut off," he says. "If you have a concern about public speaking it's because you have never acknowledged that just by being alive you are in the sales business. Ten years ago I would have said this is bullshit, but it's something I have discovered the hard way because I stand in front of people and do little else all day but talk to them. I have learned that this is essentially a sales job.

"No matter what senior executives do, they're selling. Their job is to communicate and convince, to share and support, to lead by example and inspiration and to set the boundaries by which people are then allowed to innovate, find their own spirits and accomplish goals their own way. All of those skills require good communication."

Kolm says if he were to meet someone about to go in front of an audience knowing what they wanted to say but were paralysed with terror about saying it, he would recommend two things. First, make some notes. Write down in point form the most important things you want to get across. Second, picture yourself giving the worst performance possible - stammering, quavering and the whole catastrophe. Try to see that disaster as vividly as you can in your mind and then give yourself permission to do it.

"If you stammer and quiver in front of a group, just remember you're not going to die," says Kolm. "You can get through your few notes and at the end of it the very worst is that people know you're not a polished performer. So what? You've said what you needed to say. Not brilliantly, but you've said it."

Kolm nominated an obscure name as a master communicator: Rear Admiral Grace Hopper, the most senior woman in American military history.

Hopper has direct relevance to the world of information management, the world of public speaking and the nexus between the two. She gave us the saying "There's a bug in the system" when she was working many years ago with early mainframes and a moth flew into one and shorted the circuitry. Hopper is also responsible for the oft-cited philosophy of "It's easier to ask forgiveness than it is to get permission".

"Grace convinced the military, and from there the whole world, that computers can do a lot more than just work out how much people should get paid," says Kolm. "She said that even more important was the management of the information itself, to maintain competitive advantage. Grace said this in 1948. Later in life she was an absolute master communicator. She knew she had to convince people about computers, all four foot six of her. She knew what her message was and she ended up shaking hands with presidents and kings.

"Some of the best and most effective public speakers are names you would never recognise, who have never once given a professional talk, never will and don't care about it. The best speakers are people who have a passion and can communicate that passion. It's the only qualification you need," Kolm says.

But is passion really enough today?

As many Australian CXOs have already discovered, it is not such a stretch of the imagination to find yourself as a speaker on the same conference agenda as Bill Gates, Larry Ellison, Scott McNealy, Carly Fiorina, John Chambers, former New York Mayor Rudi Giuliani or former US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger.

That would not be the time to lose your passion and become scared speechless.

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