“How to Succeed as an Executive: With Jan Day Gravel (’10)

With Jan Day Gravel (’10)
“How to Succeed as an Executive:
Use the Spoken Word More Effectively”
In June, I was pleased to be asked to facilitate a panel presentation
presented by the Arlington Chamber of Commerce on “Back to the Basics – The
Art of the Spoken Word.” One of the panelists, Jeff Porro, a speechwriter and
award winning screenwriter of the Denzel Washington movie “The Great
Debaters,” had great insights to what all of us should remember if we want to
move and engage audiences and clients.
As Jeff said, “Speeches, talks, and presentations can mean the
difference between success and failure in three critically
important parts of an executive’s job—winning clients, growing
the business, and rising within the business.” I have asked Jeff to
be my guest columnist for this month’s Leading Edge. I know his
wisdom and experience will provide key insights and serve as a
reminder to boost your confidence and become even more
effective when you are in front of an audience or a team.
Jeff follows his own recommendation by beginning with a critical element in a
presentation - a story –
There is a wonderful story in Walter Isaacson’s terrific, best-selling
biography, Steve Jobs, that should be a must read for every executive.
In 1997, Jobs was back at Apple but technically only as a “part-time”
adviser to then-CEO Gil Amelio. Apple was struggling, so Amelio was in trouble.
He got a great opportunity to rally the Apple troops when he was scheduled to
deliver the keynote address at Macworld, Apple’s annual gathering of the tribes,
just before Jobs was scheduled to speak.
Here is how Isaacson describes what happened:
“Amelio had gone on vacation, gotten into a nasty tussle with his
speechwriters and refused to rehearse…. Amelio stood on the podium bumbling
through a disjointed and endless presentation. Amelio was unfamiliar with the
talking points that popped up on his teleprompter and soon was trying to wing
his presentation. Repeatedly he lost his train of thought. After more than an hour,
the audience was aghast.”1
Amelio was out before the year ended. His fate is a dramatic illustration
that a very traditional form of communication—one human being speaking to
an audience—remains extremely important for executives, even in the age of
social media.
Here are three key things to remember that will help you use the spoken
word more effectively:
Be a Subject Matter Expert
Start Strong
Finish Well
Winning Clients – Be a Subject Matter Expert
“Give a speech. Win a client.”2 That’s the title of an article by Barbara
Haislip that appeared in the Wall Street Journal a few years ago. And it’s great
If you’re trying to win clients through traditional one-on-one or small-group
sales calls you face some daunting obstacles. A cold sales call can mean
playing telephone tag until you reach the individual in the right department—
who may or may not be interested in your service.
Even when you get in the room with a prospect, you’re “the salesperson.”
The result is a strong tendency for potential clients to tune you out. Many clients
simply don’t like the pressure of a one-on-one, especially if they’re not already
sure they want to buy.
Consider this alternative: find an opportunity to give a speech or
presentation to an audience that includes potential clients. In that situation, the
odds shift dramatically in your favor. In a larger group, people feel less pressured.
A speech also gives people a chance to see if they want to work with you
without having to listen to your sales pitch. Most important, when you give a
speech, the audience is there because they want to be, not because you
leveraged them into listening to a pitch. You are there as a subject-matter
expert, a thought leader. You’re providing them something they want—valuable
Start Strong
The good news is that public speaking is one of those skills that can be
learned. The first thing you’ll need is a strong script, and a strong speech script
must have a great beginning.
As Pete Weissman, an award-wining speechwriter and strategist who's
helped leaders at Coca-Cola and other Fortune 100 companies, puts it, “The first
few minutes are when the audience decides how closely they will listen to you or
whether they will listen at all.”
In particular, the speaker has to grab the audience by first demonstrating
that he or she knows what worries, concerns or interests are on the minds of the
In addition, the first paragraphs of a speech should establish a human
connection between speaker and audience. You have to demonstrate that you
are so likeable, authentic and interesting that the audience will enjoy spending
the next 20 minutes or so with you.
Based on my experience, here are some ways to get off to a great start.
1. Research, research, research. There is absolutely no substitute for knowing
your audience. When I’m working with a client, I try to learn every detail I
can about the venue and the people who are going to be listening.
Weissman says he makes it a point to find out what questions the
audience might be struggling with. Take some time before you write a
speech to interview the event organizers, do Web searches about the
organization, or even get in contact with speakers who’ve addressed the
group in the past.
2. Start with a joke - just kidding! The fact is, telling a joke is almost always a
really bad idea. Not only do jokes often bomb, they can make the
speaker sound phony. Humor can succeed, but only if you proceed
carefully. Self-deprecating humor works best, but only use humor if it is
part of your personality and you feel very comfortable with it.
3. Find something specific that links you to the audience. In addition to
researching the big concerns of the audience, see if you can find an
event, a person, or a place that connects you with your audience. When I
did a speech for an event in Detroit, for example, I included a story about
how the speaker was obsessed with cars during his teenage years.
4. Lay the groundwork for the rest of your speech. For an executive, a
speech should always be used to move a specific audience to action –
“buy my product, embrace our new business approach, hire my firm,”
etc. You should have that objective firmly in mind as you prepare your
opening. You don’t have to state that objective, but you should be
opening the door to it.
5. Master your start. I strongly recommend that executives – especially
young executives – know their opening paragraphs perfectly, so they can
start off very naturally and conversationally without having to look at
notes. A “natural” beginning will get the audience on your side and make
them want to hear more.
After that strong start, what comes next?
I strongly recommend executives remember to include these critically
important things in their presentations –
Get Personal
Repeat Yourself
Conflict Can be a Good Thing
Get Personal
To add energy to your speeches include some personal detail or story that
illustrates the larger substantive points you’re making. Especially for a rising
executive, making it personal has two positive effects. First, the personal touch
engages the audience. They pay more attention; they feel a stronger
connection when they hear a personal story with which they can identify. In
addition, getting personal tends to fire you up, too. Let’s face it, we all love to
talk about ourselves, and when you convey that kind of energy, the audience
will respond.
Stories…Yes. Statistics… Not So Much.
It’s a fact of life – executives love statistics. And no wonder. Statistics tell
them how their organization is doing, what their customers are buying, what their
donors are thinking, etc. Unfortunately, in a speech, a few statistics go a long
way. In fact, a parade of statistics is a sure way to make audience eyes glaze
over. Stories, on the other hand, tend to get audiences involved. So look for ways
to illustrate your key points with an evocative story or vignette that involves an
actual human being doing something. The more specific you can be (“Engineer
John Smith is on the front line of the data security revolution…”) the better.
Repeat Yourself… Repeat
It may sound odd, but to deliver a good speech, it turns out that you have
to turn off the voice in your head (probably that of your high school English
teacher) that says, “Don’t be repetitive.” That anti-repetition advice is great if
you’re writing an essay. It turns out your speeches will sound better if you repeat
yourself, using slightly different words to make a point. Repetition works because
natural speech is much more expansive than the written word.
Try this test: Look at almost any famous speech in history, and I can almost
guarantee you’ll find repetition. This is from Ronald Reagan’s speech in front of
the Berlin Wall: Freedom leads to prosperity. Freedom replaces the ancient
hatreds among the nations with comity and peace. Freedom is the victor.
Conflict Can Be a Good Thing
Lee Iacocca became nationally famous in the 1980s for using speeches to
save Chrysler. He once wrote, “A good speech, like a good novel, is constructed
around conflict.”
The reason is that conflict draws in audiences. So if it’s at all possible, draw
contrasts between opposing points of view, describe how your company is
struggling with another, how your division is helping your company overcome
challenges, or find other ways to get conflict into your speech. It will add drama
and keep your audience tuned in.
Crafting a good script is the first big step to becoming an effective
speaker. The next step is to practice, practice, practice. I advise my clients to
seek out chapters of Toastmasters (they’re everywhere), an organization that
provides lots of opportunities for speaking before a supportive audience. You
can also speed up your progress by working with a good presentation coach. I
guarantee that with some preparation and effort you will be able to make the
spoken word an effective tool for your success.
Finishing Well
While the opening of a speech or presentation is most important, the
ending is critical too. To finish strong –
Start with the end at the beginning
Everyone preparing a speech should start by asking, what results do I want
from my audience? What do I want them to do after they hear me? Then
look at the way you plan to end the speech, and make sure those words
achieve that result.
One of the classic and most effective ways to end a speech is to circle back
to the beginning of the presentation at the end. Look back at your first
couple sentences and see if you can include a reference to them as you
Do something out of the ordinary
Meryl Streep waved her Oscar for “The Iron Lady” at the end of her speech
introducing former Secretary of State Hilary Clinton. She was making a point
about the difference between playing a leader on the screen and being one
in real life. The crowd went wild. You don’t have to be that dramatic, but look
for an unusual quote, or a little known event in history.
Taking questions is great, but…
A Q&A session following your remarks can be an effective way to connect
with your audience. However, you can’t control the questions. That means
you can’t control the last words your audience will hear from you. One
recommendation is to reserve a little time after the questions for you to
deliver your final, final remarks.
T.A.P. – Talk about People
Try to end your speech by humanizing the larger point you’re making. Find an
evocative story or vignette that involves an actual human being doing
something. The more specific you can be, the better.
Now you have three core elements to remember as you prepare your next
presentation – how to start strong, critical elements to include, and how to finish
well. Include all three and I know you will be even more successful the next time
you speak!
If you want to gain more useful nuggets from Jeff, you can read them in his
book, Words That Mean Success. You can find it on Amazon, iTunes, or
Barnes & Noble. If you have a speech or talk that you are worried about or
that fell short of your goals, you may contact Jeff at [email protected]
Jeff also recommends:
10 Steps to Writing a Vital Speech: The Definitive Guide to Professional
Speechwriting by Fletcher Dean and David Murray
Toastmasters International – a communication and leadership development
organization with 292,000 members who strive to improve their speaking and
leadership skills. If you want to find a club near you, here is a link http://reports.toastmasters.org/findaclub/
Happy Thanksgiving! The holiday gives us the opportunity as leaders to hit the
pause button and count the blessings we have and the blessings we give others
as leaders. My hope for you is during the midst of activities, you find time for your
own much needed rest and renewal. If you have any thoughts or questions,
please send them to me at [email protected] In December, I will
share a resource I have recently discovered that can help you navigate the
holidays with less stress and anxiety in your life.