A new kind of speech for a new kind of CEO

Bombastic grandstanding has been replaced by on-point, risk-averse statements. Douglas Quenqua discovers how to strike a balance between effusive and elusive

Bombastic grandstanding has been replaced by on-point, risk-averse statements. Douglas Quenqua discovers how to strike a balance between effusive and elusive

"CEO" wasn't always a dirty word. There was a time not so long ago - when boy bands were atop the charts and Jeff Bezos topped out on the "edgy" meter - when CEOs were the closest thing America had to rock stars. Things might have changed, but it doesn't mean you should take the act off the road.

CEOs are still, and always will be, expected to be public figures. The temptation to avoid the spotlight is understandable - it sometimes seems corporate executives should simply be read their Miranda rights before taking the podium ("Anything you say can and will be used against you ..."). So how do you write a speech for a CEO at a time like this?

The consensus among those who did it then and do it now is to change the tone. No more bombast, no more big empty promises, no more hubris for the sake of getting press. Connect with your audience, reassure them, show some humanity, and, above all else, don't promise what you can't deliver.

"In the late 1990s, when the economy was rolling, it was a time for grand visioning," says John Baldoni, a leadership communications consultant and author of books on the subject, including 180 Ways to Walk the Leadership Talk. "When the 2000s reintroduced us to the menace of corporate fraud, cooler heads prevailed, and the visioning became more focused and finite."

That said, one must be careful not to let a reduction in rhetoric lead to a dearth of substance. Don't let caution turn your speech into a big gulp of NyQuil.

"Grandiose rhetoric is no longer credible or tolerated," says David Pasquale, SVP with New York-based The Ruth Group, "[but] a balance must be achieved. Management teams must not take their written and verbal communications to the other extreme, where they do not disclose key information. Companies must articulate their growth and channel strategies and the results achieved."

So the key - from a legal standpoint as much as a PR one - is sticking to concrete deliverables, not promises of growth or profit. "Facts: just enough, not too much, always accurate, always defensible," advises Tom Gahm, PR director, and Leigh McGivern, PR group account director at The Integer Group, via e-mail. "As you prepare speeches for executives and board members, make sure that the examples you use are real-world examples - no speculation, no composite situations. Ask yourselves, 'If the listener wants to check this out for himself, do we have any reservations about giving him the needed contact information?'"

Indeed, it's vital to bear in mind the listener's needs, putting them before the needs of the speaker. "What I do is try to put myself in the mind of the listener," says Tim Hanlon, EVP of DVC Worldwide's PR division and a former speechwriter for Secretary of State Colin Powell when he was CEO of America's Promise. "I always think, 'What do they want to hear?' A lot of times [executives] will come back and say, 'Wow I got all my points across.' Well OK, but what about their points?

"Michael Eisner will be a great case history for PR people," Hanlon continues. "Look at the speech that he gave in Philadelphia and you realize he is completely out of touch with what shareholders are thinking. If you approach it from the standpoint of the audience, you are more than halfway there."

Humility is a running theme these days. With self-obsessed CEOs like Martha Stewart and Ken Lay getting so much attention, it's important for the good guys to assure the audience of their humanity. There are a number of ways to do that.

"They need to show a concern for people, especially if they are speaking to a younger audience," explains Marcia Reynolds, president of leadership consultancy Covisioning and author of Outsmart Your Brain! Get Happy, Get Heard, and Get Your Way at Work. "The martketplace is finally accepting that most of what we think and do is based on how we feel. [Speakers] need to engage the audience in a way that creates an emotional experience."

"I encourage CEOs to tell stories about their childhood that relate to the topic," says Susan Harrow, a media coach and marketing strategist. "This instantly humanizes them, takes their audience back to happy times sitting on their parent's or grandparent's knee, and creates a deep emotional connection."

"You want to talk about at least some kind of challenges you've faced," advises Andy Tannen, director of MS&L Executive Forums. "Include real examples. It's not a bad thing to talk about cases where you did not succeed. The audience appreciates that you don't want to create this perception of how perfect I am and how great I am. That's way out of step with the tenor of the times."

But perhaps the best way to connect with your audience is also the most standard: humor.

"Humor is very bonding," says Cheri Kerr, president of presentation-skills training firm ExecuProv. "It's one of the most important things to do in communications, and those who use humor are people that everyone wants to see speak." Kerr should know. A founding member of world-renowned LA improv troupe The Groundlings, she now gets paid by high-powered execs to punch up their speeches with "entertainment value."

"Not that CEOs need to sing or dance, but they need to have some interesting anecdotes or quotes so people don't sit there and go to sleep," she says. "Especially if they're doing a PowerPoint presentation."

While the right humor can endear a speaker to his or her audience, it's important to remember that the wrong humor can alienate the speaker just as fast. Here, too, is where today's CEO speeches differ from those just a few years ago. So be certain not to offend: try your humor out on a wide swath of people first. "I think people have to be a lot more politically correct," says Kerr. "People like to take what executives say and blow it up into a big deal, so you have to be cautious about something that could come back to haunt you."

Technique tips

Do include positive comments about concrete company achievements

Do connect with the audience through personal stories and by displaying vulnerability

Do use appropriate humor to entertain

Don't include hubristic, unsupportable claims of growth and profit

Don't try to project an image of infallibility or greatness

Don't be so cautious you forget to rouse the audience with a sense of purpose and optimism

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