Enter, Stage Fright

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 #8212 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.

Page Break

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."

Page Break

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."

1 2 Page 1
Page 1 of 2
Security vs. innovation: IT's trickiest balancing act