Today's post comes from ROAM Communications network partner, Dave Yewman. He is co-founder of Elevator Speech and owner of DASH Consulting and a master media trainer.
It’s usually a male executive who says it, and it usually goes something like this:
“Practice for my presentation? Oh, no. I’m good. I really don’t have time and I know the material really well anyway … I like to be in the moment, keep things real … I don’t want to be too rote … it’s basically the same speech I gave at the investor’s conference last month anyway …”
Bullshit. All of it.
Yes, they’re smart guys. Yes, they know their material well. Yes, it probably is a speech they’ve given before. But when you don’t prep for a presentation, a media interview, an important investor briefing or a speech to new hires you put yourself before your audience. And that’s a problem.
Your audience deserves your best effort and if you don’t practice then they’re not getting it.
In no other part of corporate America would such shabby excuses be permitted. Imagine writing a press release without having someone edit it for errors. Imagine letting a CFO “wing” a quarterly earnings announcement. Imagine letting weird Fred in HR write the employee handbook with quality controls.
Brands don’t permit any such nonsense because they know brands are fragile things, subject to much damage from even inadvertent remarks or statements.
Yet when CEOs stand on stage before 500 people at industry events - when they hold their brands in the very palms of their hands - we somehow are okay with a lack of practice beforehand?
There’s a great irony in speaking well - it’s that superb communicators appear to be “winging it” because they’re so in the moment, so confident, comfortable and in control on stage. They possess what’s sometimes called “executive presence,” which simply means they get to the point, they tell good stories to illustrate their messages, they finish on time and they appear as though nothing in the world is bothering them.
It’s not true. It just looks that way. Superb communicators practice like crazy to give the appearance of being calm, cool and collected on stage. Inside, their hearts are racing, adrenaline is surging through their bodies and they’re incredibly nervous. But they control it - because they’ve practiced. And practiced. And practiced.
Steve Jobs was superb because he spent two days practicing in the Moscone Center for those 45-minute Macworld keynotes, most TED speakers go through a rigorous prep process that typically equates to roughly one hour of prep for one minute of stage time. Master communicators practice out loud and often that practice is videotaped - which is equal parts excruciating and useful.
Several years ago I sat in a very nice executive conference room with a very prominent CEO of a major European brand. The company has just signed a deal with another huge brand worth hundreds of millions of Euros. The CEO was charged with delivering the news to 3,000 employees at a big company event one month away.
We sat down and I said, “Okay, what we’re going to do is have you practice the first 3-4 minutes of your speech out loud” and I gestured to the video camera on its tripod sitting next to me. “We’ll record what you say and watch it back to see what worked, and what didn’t.”
The CEO didn’t want to go on camera (no one ever does). He said, “I don’t want to go on camera, let’s just talk about the speech, read through the draft and look at the slides.”
“No,” I said. “Not how this works. Let’s project the slides, have the speech printed out and set in front of you and let’s have you deliver the opening on camera.”
Twenty seconds of uncomfortable silence ensued. For a moment I thought the beefy corporate security guards may come in to the executive suite and escort me from the premises. Then with a heavy sigh, the CEO stood up and delivered the opening 3-4 minutes of his speech out loud. I recorded it and we played it back.
It was awful. But because we had a month to prep and could work on the speech every other day, it got slowly better. If that CEO had “winged” his big speech it would have been a disaster. But he didn’t, he prepped very diligently. And he did a good job on the big day. No one in the audience knew he’d spent weeks rehearsing and making adjustments, they just saw his presentation and enjoyed the news of the multi million Euro deal.
Now that CEO, and pretty much every other C-suite executive I’ve ever coached - male or female - pretty much hated going on camera. But seeing yourself on video is what my business partner Andy calls “truth serum” because you see what the audience sees, and that’s powerful. In some ways, preparing out loud and on camera is like being a basketball or football player whose practice sessions are recorded. When you watch film of a practice - or a game - you can see exactly what went right, and what went wrong. Then you can make adjustments and get better.
But not if you try to wing it, not if you evade practice sessions, not if you yield to the bullshit notion that you, only you, are smart enough to deliver a great message without practicing.
If the first time you say the words out loud are when there’s 500, or 10, people looking at you, or when the press interview begins, or when the investors gather for your update - then heaven help you. Because even you don’t know what’s going to come out of your mouth, because you haven’t practiced.
Don’t be that person.
About Dave Yewman
A friend of Dave’s 11-year-old son Aaron asked, “What does your Dad do?” Aaron thought for a minute, then said, “He teaches people how not to say ‘um.'” That’s a pretty good elevator speech for a presentation coach. Dave likes to think there’s a bit more to presentation coaching than that — but it’s a great place to start. In the past 10+ years Dave’s coached CEOs, professional athletes, tech startup founders, engineers, creative designers and pretty much everyone in between.
Dave Yewman is a strategic communications expert with more than 15 years of experience. A former newspaper reporter and columnist, he speaks regularly to groups about how to use clear, concise, compelling language as a strategic weapon when dealing with reporters, employees, sales prospects, shareholders, and consumers.
Dave lives near Portland, Oregon.
Learn more about Dave and ElevatorSpeech at www.elevatorspeech.com.
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