When executives are invited to speak, they are usually asked to take questions after the formal presentation. Q&A sessions are always a little risky, because they are out of your control. You decide exactly what you want say in your speech, but what listeners wants to ask is (usually) their choice. The good news is you can manage that risk and make Q&A time work for you, but only if you prepare. In the next couple blogs, I’ll offer some thoughts on how to do that.
The most obvious way to prepare is to work with staff or friends to try to anticipate possible questions (especially tough ones), come up with good answers, and then learn those answers cold. If you’re writing for an executive, make sure he or she is never “too busy” for that kind of advance work. If you’re the exec, make time to prepare.
At the same time, keep in mind that sharing your knowledge or opinions is only one of the goals of answering audience questions. Another important goal is showing that you’re a leader, someone audience members should take seriously. The best way to do that is to stay calm under pressure.
That’s true even if you’re asked a question that stumps you. Mark Ein, CEO of Venturehouse Group, LLC, a long-time Washington, DC investor and entrepreneur told me the way to handle a stumper is to keep cool, acknowledge that the question is a good one, you don’t have answer right now and but will give it more thought.
Above all, don’t fake it! I guarantee that giving a phony answer will come back to haunt you.
To paraphrase Lee Iacocca, the object of every speech is to motivate, which makes the last words your audience hears from you critically important.
Here are some ways to end with a bang, not a whimper. (You’ll find more in my book, Words that Mean Success.)
Bookend. 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. President Obama does this a lot.
Do Something out of the Ordinary. Look for an unusual quote (I found one from daredevil Evel Knievel), a little known event in history, a case of strange bed fellows, etc. Use anything that makes the audience sit up and take notice. One warning: be very careful about using humor. (You’ve heard this from me before.) In particular, it is very risky to end with a joke.
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 (“Engineer John Smith is on the front line of the data security revolution…”) the better.
Well, that honeymoon didn’t last long. Less than two months into her new job as CEO of GM, Mary Barra is face-to-face with a huge crisis: GM has admitted that the company knew for more than a decade about a defective ignition problem that cost motorists their lives, but it began recalling vehicles only in the past month.
Barra has yet to give a speech about the problem, but she took on the crisis in a short video to GM employees, and has given a press conference. (She is due to testify before Congress soon.)
She did a pretty good job in those early remarks. In the video, she made very clear that she understood how serious the problem is. “Terrible things happened,” she said. And she got personal, saying that the loss of life “hits home to me as a mother.”
She also said that, while GM had apologized, she knew that was just a first step. In her press conference she added, “I take full responsibility for the work going forward. Our goal is something like this never happens again.”
To be sure, she never quite said, “This is GM’s fault. We did wrong, and we’re going to fix it.” I suspect that’s because of influence of company lawyers.
Still, she’s made a good start. I hope she gives a major speech, and keeps moving in the right direction.
Unless you’ve been literally hibernating, you know that the Microsoft board has chosen Satya Nadella to become the software giant’s new CEO.
To re-energize the mammoth company, Nadella is going to have to restore the confidence of Microsoft customers, employees, and investors. And to get that done, it will help a lot if he can give great speeches and presentations.
So…can he or can’t he? The final answer will come only after Nadella’s had the chance to work with speechwriters and presentation coaches, but early indications are…mixed.
The good news: if you look at his past speeches and presentations, he has a pretty lively presence (especially for an engineer). He doesn’t drone. He speaks clearly, with good pauses and emphasis in the right places. So good potential there.
The not so good news: he’s very devoted to statistics and jargon and doesn’t like to talk about human beings much (himself included.) It’s easy to find phrases like “topline growth was 2X,” “inflection point,” etc. It’s very hard to find any stories or drama.
I cut him some slack because he’s been the head of very technical divisions and his audiences have been pretty specialized. Still, he’ll have to work hard if he wants to be able to rally the troops.
GM CEO Mary Barra
Very exciting news out of Detroit that General Motors has chosen Mary Barra as its new CEO, making her the first woman to head an automaker. The reaction to Barra’s appointment has been enthusiastic, with almost every analyst making the point that Barra has done a terrific job as a GM executive, and should be a great CEO.
Having taken a look at a couple of her speeches, I’d add that she has the potential to be excellent at one of a CEO’s most important roles – using speeches and presentations to engage critical audiences (internal and external). For example, give a listen to her commencement speech at Kettering University (formerly GM Institute), from which she graduated in 1985. She connects with the new graduates in the audience well– praising their Millennial generation, while also gently teasing them about short attention spans and devotion to social media.
She also shares some personal stuff very effectively: She talks about her own time at Kettering (and pokes fun her generation’s technological backwardness), and she mentions her own teen-age kids, saying she’s learned a lot about Millennials from them.
All great stuff. Unfortunately, when she comes to the five pieces of advice she wants to share with the new graduates, they are the fairly standard exhortations you can hear from almost any commencement speaker: “Hard work beats talent if talent doesn’t work hard” … “Address challenges head-on”… “Change the world” …and so on.
Still, I know how hard it is to say anything fresh in one of these speeches. I hope she continues to connect with audiences, use humor effectively, and share some of her personal story. If she does, I’m betting she’ll be one of the best CEOs at using the spoken word powerfully and effectively.