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

SIDEBAR: Getting Those Butterflies Flying in Formation

How one CIO discovered he had nothing to fear but fear itself

To Peter Gaca, public speaking used to be a horrifying, paralysing, demoralising experience. The CIO of Melbourne Docklands - the $6 billion redevelopment of the waterfront on the western side of Melbourne's CBD - says he can remember going into presentations with butterflies the size of emus. And coming out depressed.

"I'd do everything wrong," he says, "like pausing when my voice started to go, freezing up, speaking too quickly, not testing my equipment - even turning my back on the audience!"

It had to change. And it did. Today, Gaca is an accomplished speaker. Recently, he hosted the National Conference of the Record Management Association of Australia at Melbourne's Crown Casino where he gave several speeches to different audiences. He shared various stages with senior executives from NASA, Microsoft, the National Office for the Information Economy, Fuji Xerox, Multimedia Victoria, Gartner Research, Cisco and IBM. More than 1000 people attended the conference.

Gaca believes it is vital for IT executives to command an audience because now is a critical time for the profile of IT. "This is where we are lacking," he says. "Senior executives in our industry are not listened to because we are not seen as clear communicators and we don't use the right language. Most are either perceived to be talking techo or they do talk techo. We need to understand business more and understand people better. And it's not as if we have a choice. We have to speak well in order to survive.

"It's also fantastic for your career. It networks you, it gets you noticed. It's all about people and building relationships through clear communication."

Gaca says the public speaking training courses he completed were time and money well spent. Professional coaching teaches basic skills, he says. After that, it is practice, practice, practice. One trick he employs is the lift test: give your spiel to a colleague as you ride down a lift. At the bottom, find out if they got your message. "The structure is: what's my point, here's why I'm giving you my point, here's an example of my point, here's my point. That's it. Practise that and it will become second nature.

"When you're giving a major conference speech or a training session it all comes down to preparation and removing what I call the noise and clutter so your message can be received. Also, make sure you've got multiple media - aural, visual and kinaesthetic. Did you hear what I said? Can you see what I mean? How do you feel about that? They're my secrets. And I take every opportunity to practise."

Having videotaped some of his own speeches and watched many other people present, Gaca has some encouragement: Things are never as bad as they seem. "Funnily enough, you always think you're much worse than what you really are," he says. "My biggest fear has always been that I don't know the content well enough. That's when I get worried about giving a presentation. If you know the content you can usually wing it. But if you don't, well . . . "

Gaca says the IT industry is guilty of creating tools that make us poor communicators: e-mail, death by PowerPoint, too much text on a screen and visuals that do not convey a message.

"Sorry, but I'm the person who agrees with Harvard Business Review [Nicholas Carr's article 'IT Doesn't Matter']," he says. "IT will become a commodity. It's the content that is paramount. All technology does is make more and more content available. The medium just gets you there. It's all about how to get access to intelligent content and how to communicate it. That's why it is critical for us to be good communicators.

"The people I'm talking about are all so skilled. Some have three degrees. Some of them are gurus, but they can't explain the most basic concepts. That's a terrible waste and it has to change."

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