Secrets of Successful CEOs who Speak Well
By: Suzanne Bates
“To speak, and to speak well, are two things. A fool may talk, but a wise man speaks.”
- Ben Johnson, British Poet and Dramatist
When it comes to public speaking, speakers must technically speak well, but they must also have substance. They must look and sound like leaders –especially if they’re CEOs and executives.
Your first focus must be content. Technical skill alone is not enough. Your first concern should be what you say and then how you can make it clear and compelling. The leaders cited in this chapter provide some guidance on powerful messages. Message is the foundation. Without that, you’re just a speaker, not a leader.
Secret 1: Talk about Big Ideas
“He can compress the most words into the smallest ideas of any man I ever met.”
- Abraham Lincoln, 16th US President
Every speech, presentation, or other communication needs one big idea. A big idea is all that most people can remember. A big idea has a life o fits own. And it doesn’t require a big speech. It’s big because of its power, not its length.
Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address is 271 words, and it’s one of the best speeches ever given. Back on that day in 1863, the crowd hadn’t even come to hear President Lincoln; they were there to listen to the country’s most famous orator, Edward Everett, who talked for two hours. When Lincoln go up, he gave the address in three minutes. But in three minutes, there was one big idea. He persuaded the nation to fight on.
No one likes long speeches. Personally, I never like it when I’m asked to give a forty-five minute keynote — it’s too long! Short speeches, big ideas –that’s the secret. Another example of a big idea is President Kennedy’s 1961 speech that inspired the United States to put a man on the moon. At the time, the country had fallen behind the Soviet Union in the space race and had made only a few successful manned flights. Kennedy said we would go to the moon, and we did — we landed before the decade was out.
We choose to go to the moon. We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge in one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win, and the others, too.
Secret 2: Speak in the Moment
No one likes a canned speech. Canned speeches turn people off. You must talk to people about what is happening in the moment. “If you think about the usual setting,” said one CEO, “you have an audience sitting there saying, “Who is this person and why is he talking?” That’s not a great setting to start with. It appears somewhat adversarial.” Your message must be about them and about what’s happening in the moment in order to win over the audience that isn’t sure it even wants to listen.
Arnold Zetcher, president and CEO of Talbots, was being honored by the National Retail Federation a few months after the tragedy of September 11, 2001. He knew this particular speech had to be different from the others he had given. He said, “The first draft was a basic acceptance speech, and then we thought, “Wait a minute, we need to talk about what people are thinking. We need to talk about something bigger. It has to be about the country.” Zetcher and his team revamped the whole speech, and it was one of the best he had ever given.
When Sovereign Bank was opening its offices in New England, there was a lot of doubt about whether the company could compete with the other banks in the region. Chairman and CEO John Hamill called a meeting of all five hundred employees to erase this doubt. “I decided the only thing I could do was face the questions head on,” he said. “The meeting had to deal with what was on their minds, then and there.” He talked about why he had joined the bank and why he believed in his heart they would succeed. “Confronting the doubt made it work,” he said. “When you are in touch with what people are thinking in that moment, you can confront it and clean it out to get them ready to hear the important message.”
Secret 3: Keep It Simple
One problem with many speeches is that they try to do too much. Your message must be simple and straightforward to be remembered.
Roger Marino, founder of the high-tech giant EMC, grew up in a working-class neighborhood on Boston’s north shore and got his electrical engineering degree from a co-op school, Northeastern University. Yet, Marino was a salesman at heart. EMC sold one of the least sexy products or services you can imagine — storage systems for computer information – but he and his two partners built a company that went on to dominate the industry.
Marino learned early on how important communication is in business – particularly when it comes to keeping things simple. “When I was in college and I would see one of these engineering professors talking, if I didn’t get what they were talking about, it was annoying,” he said. “I couldn’t figure out why other people thought a professor who couldn’t explain things was so brilliant.”
Marino considered the brilliant professors to be the ones who could actually communicate the ideas in ways people could understand. “Communication is everything,” he said. “You really have to hammer a message home.”
Taking his lessons learned in college to the business world, Marino considers the simple message his strength. Keeping it simple is how he keeps people interested and absorbed in the subject at hand – no matter what it is. “I can teach golf or tennis precisely because I don’t have natural ability. I just explain the steps,” he said. A CEO has to do the same thing: take people from A to B to C.”
Suzanne Bates is an executive coach, author, certified speaking professional (CSP), former award-winning television news anchor, and CEO of Bates Communications, Inc. Her firm improves clients' businesses by transforming leaders into powerful communicators. Clients include Dow Chemical, Merck, Fidelity, Mellon/Bank of NY, Habitat for Humanity, John Hancock, VF Outdoor, Raytheon, Deloitte, Blue Cross/Blue Shield, The North Face, and Stop and Shop. Suzanne is author of the bestselling business books Speak Like a CEO: Secrets for Commanding Attention and Getting Results and Motivate Like a CEO: Communicate Your Strategic Vision and Inspire People to Act!, both published by McGraw Hill.