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.

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Snooze Control

We've all been there: trapped in an audience listening to one of those tedious presentations that infest the conference circuit. It is worse when you have paid good money to be there and worse still when you have travelled time zones to be in the room. This is one of the reasons Maher believes there should be an RSPCCA - a Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Captive Audiences.

Maher's business, Celebrity Speakers, started as a "wild idea" in 1978. Cynics dubbed it "Rent A Mouth". Today, Maher works with clients and speakers around the world and is eminently qualified to know what works and what does not. She says that in 25 years, little has changed.

"The very best executive speakers are much better, but the vast majority are trapped by the technology that is supposed to help them," she says. "I'm talking about PowerPoint specifically, which is a fabulous aid if properly used. But you should never put words on a screen and that's still what people do."

Maher says when she goes to conferences she amuses herself by calculating the value of the salaries sitting in the room - if she can stay awake. "I don't know about you but when someone puts me in a room, turns out the light and starts to read to me I nod off like it's a bedtime story," she says. "I have never had one person tell me they don't get bored sitting in a darkened room listening to someone read. Everyone complains about it but no one does anything."

Maher says part of the problem is that we assume because everyone can talk we are all able to speak. People forget that none of us are born knowing how to talk; we learn. If we want to move beyond talking to speaking we have to learn that too. This is why coaches like Maher encounter more and more people today who believe they can advance their career by improving their speaking skills.

"Over the years we've had people sent to us who have missed out on [C-level] positions and they've been told by the headhunters it was because their communication skills were not what they should be," Maher says. "Many of those people are in technical areas. They have great ideas but they just don't know how to present them.

"You have to learn to be yourself and let your personality shine. Men find this difficult because they're taught not to show emotion. This is especially so for people from a professional, technical or IT background - people who are taught that logic is everything. They are very left-brain. Yet when you talk to them you find these fabulous human beings.

"One of the biggest mistakes people make when they present is they push every ounce of their personality down and pull up this mask. I call it 'businessman bland'. At the other extreme you find those who think they should start with a joke. People who never tell jokes in private try to be a comedian in front of a crowd - with the obvious results."

Maher says CIOs do not get listened to as much as they should - or worse, appear dull or dim-witted - because they are perceived to have a narrow focus. That comes from them concentrating on what they think of their ideas rather than on what their ideas mean for others. They drown people with detail and smother them in statistics.

"The trick is being able to distil from everything you know what the people you are speaking to need to know," Maher says. "And therein lies the rub. For many IT executives, their need to tell gets in the way of their audience's need to know. CIOs get frustrated because they know their subject, but they can't simplify it."

Jim McNamara, the CEO of communication research and consulting firm MASS Communication Group and author of The Modern Presenter's Handbook, says our ability to generate action often depends on our ability to present our ideas persuasively. "Senior executives mistakenly feel their staff will listen to them simply because they are the boss," he says.

"Most presenters seriously over-estimate the attentiveness of their audience. It usually includes many people who would rather be somewhere else. From the outset, you need to put aside the view that a presentation is what you are going to say. It is what your audience is going to hear. The key to communication to any audience is that you have to show what's in it for them."

Maher says some executives who are already competent speakers have the potential to develop real star quality. These people become storytellers and achieve what she calls "the gift of simplicity". "I'm not talking about bullshit stories," says Maher, "because if there is one bottom line it's that being honest is multiplied by 1000 per cent today because people don't expect you to be honest. The value of not putting a spin on something is enormous."

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Easier Said

Do you know the 11 vocal "turn-offs" and how they affect your audience? Could you be using one every time you speak? If someone showed you how easy it is to learn how to use your natural voice for clarity, impact and credibility, would you be interested?

The Voice Business is one of many companies that help executives improve their speaking skills. They even conduct elocution, vocabulary and accent reduction courses. The formats and costs vary, but a typical program comprises four one-hour sessions for $1250. Clients of The Voice Business include senior executives from Accenture, American Express, AMP, Commonwealth Bank, GIO, IBM, Macquarie Bank, Qantas, Telstra, Visa and Westpac, as well as television presenters from Foxtel, Channel 7 and Channel Ten. Vivian's model agency and the Sydney Theatre Company are also clients.

The Voice Business claims people can learn how to present themselves and their ideas, build successful relationships and win more business simply by learning how to use their voice. It says a person who sounds confident, believable, clear and interesting stands out from the crowd and earns more money and favourable attention than those who do not.

Juliet Jordan, CEO of The Voice Business, says many of the senior executives they coach have an irrational fear of public speaking. As companies restructure, downsize and change their framework from bureaucracies to self-empowered teams, there is a hungry demand for public speaking skills. Some senior people watch nervously as younger managers with little or no respect emerge to threaten their positions. Others need to upskill. Some have been headhunted or want to make themselves more appealing to headhunters. Women are regular clients because they want to be able to adjust their tone to suit certain pressure situations. There are also those who are unemployed and need their confidence boosted.

"The other thing driving demand is that our patience for absorbing information has been reduced, so executives need to know how to organise their material and get their message through as fast as possible without sounding garbled," Jordan says.

"We've been sent seasoned newsreaders who need to sharpen how they change their tone so they can go from a terrorist story to talking about puppies frolicking on a beach. And we have a lot of young presenters from Foxtel who haven't the faintest idea of what to do in front of a camera. They just look good. You have to learn to work with your own voice and body to have an emotional effect on others."

Discretion is paramount with senior executives. Most coaching is one-on-one since the vast majority do not want others to know that they're learning. The coaches say the most common things they hear from clients is how nervous they feel about speaking. They want more confidence. They speak too fast. They dry up in front of an audience. They think they are boring. They say people cannot understand them. Or they cannot avoid public speaking any longer.

"It's a personal development experience and like any fear 'bust' it's a thrill to get through to the other side," says Jordan. "Fear is just excitement without the breathing. One of the foundation skills in public speaking is to make sure you're alive and kicking. It seems ridiculous but breathing is the first thing that goes down the plughole. Once you regain control over that physiological process, you gain control of your voice. This gives you enormous credibility in the workplace."

Public speaking coaches say most senior executives are gracious and easy to work with. The biggest problems are those executives who are still on the make. "We have always found that the people with the largest achievements have the smallest egos," says Maher. "Instead, they have a determination to do as well as they possibly can. It's like Nelson Mandela: They are champions for something rather than champions of something."

However, IT people - even some of the champions - still tend to complicate information. So simplification is vital, as is the use of analogies from areas such as cooking or sport to explain complexities and processes. These are called "universals" in the trade - those experiences that all humans share. Maher says many CIOs stumble because they aim only for a head to head connection. Reciting only facts and figures, she says, makes them "as interesting as a dictionary". Failing to connect with people on an emotional as well as an intellectual level means they won't connect with them at all.

"Speakers also need credibility in terms of documented and recognised achievements," she says. "A person does not have to be a household name but you need to be able to say you were responsible for XYZ. Then you need to have the style that makes people want to listen."

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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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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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SIDEBAR: Tips on Public Speaking

  • Write your own introduction.
  • Establish rapport with the audience early. Get them involved. Ask them questions.
  • Be flexible. Play off your audience.
  • What you say is not as important as how you say it.
  • Self-effacing humour works best.
  • Don't give a talk — have a conversation. People want stories, not information.
  • The presentation does not have to be great. If your audience gets one good idea from your talk, it will have been worthwhile.
  • The three toughest audiences to address are engineers, accountants and high school students.
  • Today's most popular speaking topic: change and how to cope with it.
  • You can't please everybody, so don't even try.
  • Be totally authentic.
  • The only way to overcome what you fear is to do it.
  • With speaking, everything you see, read, hear, do or experience is grist for your mill.
  • People like speakers who are humble; audiences hate braggarts.
  • Take a course in public speaking. Join a speakers association such as Toastmasters or Rotary.
  • Listen to great speakers and learn from them.
  • Use audiovisual aids, but not as a crutch.
  • There is no failure — just feedback.
  • Practice makes perfect. If you want to become a good speaker give as many talks as you can.
  • If you must use PowerPoint, no more than five words to a line and no more than five lines to a screen.
  • No one has ever complained about a speech being too short.

Sources: Dr Rob Gilbert, sports psychologist and motivational speaker, New Jersey; Christine Maher, managing director of Celebrity Speakers, Sydney; Juliet Jordan, CEO of The Voice Business, Sydney; John Kolm, managing director of Team Results, Melbourne

SIDEBAR: Are You Speaking to Me?

In the US, public speaking has become an art form where the cult of the C-level executive means presentation skills are highly prized and handsomely rewarded. In some circles it is known as the "martial art of speaking". Speaking coaches say there is a reason people pay more for entertainment than education. That is why it takes a university lecturer 10 years to earn what Oprah Winfrey gets paid per week.

Veteran award-winning writer and director Robert McKee has taken his lectures on the art of storytelling worldwide for more than 20 years to an audience of writers, directors, producers, actors - and business executives. While graduates of McKee's courses have won 19 Academy Awards and written such recent hits as A Beautiful Mind, Lord of the Rings (the movie), Frasier and Sex And The City, he is often asked by business people to transform mundane PowerPoint presentations into memorable stories.

McKee instructs people to embrace the dramas that surround all businesses and explain how they were overcome. He advises executives to tell a compelling story, so convinced is he that this is the only way to persuade customers or staff to believe in your product or follow your vision.

McKee's argument is that people forget lists and bullet points. They only remember stories. He advises presenters to regard their performances not as an intellectual process but as an emotional one, because people are not inspired to act by reason alone.

And there are thousands looking for inspiration. A recent survey of major event organisers in the US revealed that the number of technology speaking opportunities on the US conference circuit alone is expected to double this year. Hot topics include security, distance learning, Web services and wireless. One conference organiser cited more than 1500 speaking opportunities last year that were available to any company with a qualified speaker.