The Five Biggest Mistakes CEOs Make in Speaking

Most CEOs are not inspiring. After more than 20 years of observing and working with CEOs and leaders in business, it’s hard to come to any other conclusion. And of all the folks who have to speak and communicate to inspire and motivate – they are it! I really think it’s because they have never received the right coaching to present their ideas brilliantly. And then they get to the level where it’s hard to get a training session where you can actually practice without a lot of handlers or support people around. But that’s the only way to risk, and grow, and it’s worth every bit of the effort – as those CEOs who have taken the risk and become great communicators can agree. (Look at Steve Jobs, Chuck Schwab and Bill Clinton for a few examples.)

So with that, here’s the Five Biggest Mistakes I’ve discovered, with some coaching insights that will hopefully be passed on, because just maybe your CEO could use a hint or two if he or she is afflicted. I call them presentation tips for the top dog, (and all the little dogs too.) Speaking and communicating with excellence and energy is a learned skill, and critical for leadership and motivation – the CEOs primary task.

Mistake Number One: Reading speeches

Yup, this is numero uno because its so pervasive. I guess because it’s safe and traditional. It just doesn’t work. We think that speaking is just a form of the written medium. Not so – they are almost polar opposites in form and purpose.

I think CEOs drift to reading speeches for a few reasons. They do it so someone else can write the speech, or so they don’t have to practice, or maybe they insist on being precisely accurate. The problem is it is not effective. We are all taught that if we say the words people will get the message, but it’s not true. Not when:

  • You’re looking down too much to read and not connecting with listeners through good eye communication.
  • Your voice tends to be monotone because you are READING not speaking and expressing from the heart.
  • You are stuck behind a lectern, often holding on for dear life (if you fear public speaking), and not moving around naturally and gesturing with enthusiasm.

Reading speeches often is unconsciously perceived as maybe someone else’s words, not authentic, and certainly rarely enthusiastic (see above.) (Partly because she read a speech so poorly, short lived Senate candidate Jeannine Pirro dropped out of the race. Take a look here.)

Don’t read speeches! It may be easier, and feel safer, but it does not communicate well, much less inspire or motivate. And it takes twice as long to prepare as it should.

And if you aren’t going to read presentations, don’t write them out in the first place. There’s a better way – create your messages by using note concepts, brainstorming and organizing on Post-it notes. And although I’m certainly biased, I would suggest using the Decker Grid System™ because it works – using these principles. (There are tens of thousands of well prepared folks out there using the Grid, who are well prepared in half the time, and never read!)

Mistake Number 2: They Don’t Tell Stories

Before email, before the computer, even before the Guttenberg Press – there were communication and speeches. And those speeches had STORIES. And they communicated with power and emotion. Where have all the flowers (er, stories) gone – (actually not a bad metaphor, stories are a fragrant aroma in a good speech.)

CEOs, much like all of us, get continuously inundated with facts and figures. They are pressured with the minutiae of the day – so they tend to think in facts, tasks, concepts, numbers, etc. The problem is, in the spoken medium facts and figures don’t cut it. They are not remembered, and they are usually boring. Save their overuse for the written medium, when you are trying to inform, not trying to influence.

And the irony is that a CEOs real job is not to inform but to influence. They are always influencing, for they are the vision casters – or should be. And vision is made up of the collective aspirations, efforts and triumphs of the people of a company or an organization. Which is overflowing with vital, interesting, and compelling – stories.

A second irony is stories are easy to tell. It makes speaking easier. I remember a corporate client that had a new CEO elected after a long absence in the position. The CEO happened to be at the headquarters about a month before he was to officially start, and there was an all employee meeting going on. The interim leader asked if he wanted to drop by, and the CEO saw an opportunity – not for a formal address but to say a few words – just to get acquainted. He thought quickly. Then he spoke for 8 minutes, of which 6 minutes were a story of his first (positive) experience with the company. People loved it, and him, even though there wasn’t much content there. A story is not only easy to tell, it connects with people. Sometimes that’s the most important thing.

Stories are the way we kept traditions and passed on wisdom in ages past. Just because we have faster means of telecommunications and video today, doesn’t mean we should forget this most powerful medium of all. Remember that the one person considered by many to be the greatest communicator in history ONLY spoke in stories and parables. He was a leader of tens and hundreds, and ultimately millions, and he didn’t have the benefit of a speechwriter, or a large organization for support, or the leverage of the media for that matter. But he changed history more than any other man, in one solitary life. And Jesus did it all by speaking. With stories.

So become a storyteller. And it’s not just for CEOs, but for all of us. We have gotten out of the habit of telling stories. They are great conversation starters at lunches, conferences and parties too. Stories are going on all around us – and we don’t take advantage of them. There are our own personal stories, and stories of our employees and clients. And don’t forget the power of OPE, Other People’s Experience. That is even more effective when you can make a point by lauding, building up or highlighting another rather than yourself. Think of the inspirational stories we can see and hear daily if we keep our ears and eyes open. It’s a mind set – and can expand to stories of events and circumstances, animals and nature, and even fantasy and fable.

Get in the habit – be a great storyteller.

Mistake #3: CEOs Are Too Stiff

Way too often we have seen a CEO making a major speech, with both hands hanging on the lectern for dear life. Not good. First of all, why is the CEO hanging on (or appearing to do so – perception is reality in the eyes of the perceiver.) He or she is the CEO and should not be nervous anyway, so why isn’t he or she showing energy, enthusiasm and excitement about their message?

One of the primary problems I see in most CEOs (and others’) speaking is they are too stiff – too wooden. It knocked one top executive right out of the Presidency – Al Gore. If he was open and expressive in his communicating ability, he might just be the President of the United States right now.

Communication rides energy, and too many people lose all their natural and expressive energy when it counts most – when they are leveraging their time speaking to hundreds or thousands at once. They emphasize their content, thinking “if I just say the words, people will get them. Not so.

Remember Professor Albert Mehrabian’s research – when you give an inconsistent message, people will trust and believe what they see and hear, not so much what you say. In training and coaching over 200,000 people we have found this to be absolutely true. So both the research and the experience say: Express your enthusiasm!

The primary problem of CEOs speaking behavior is that they don’t, quite simply,

  • Move
  • Gesture
  • Smile

What to do

Forward Lean, like an athlete. If a CEO would think more like an athlete, they would make being in the ‘ready position’ a habit. On the balls of your feet, ready to move, like an athlete. If you’re forward, you want to MOVE forward, both physically and psychologically. Then you can get out from behind the lectern and move around the stage or room. Naturally. Not standing stiff and wooden in one place.

Let your hands work for you. In personally coaching tens of thousands, I’ve seen maybe one out of 500 who over use their hands and gestures. The problem is we all tend to have a nervous gesture that we are comfortable with, like the fig leaf, but shows our nervousness. Don’t let your comfort be your guide, help the audience be comfortable with you be showing confidence and certainty in your gestures.

Lighten up. Look at what a smile did for Katie Couric – enormous influence as well as millions of dollars. Think funny.

Final recommendation to those CEOs who are afflicted with “tight speak,” get on videotape. We have to see ourselves to really see how we come across, and see both the strengths and the weaknesses. CEOs often rehearse the content of a speech, but only the enlightened ones rehearse their behavioral skills. Like professional athletes, they need to be continuously in training, getting coaching and feedback. Particularly video feedback.

Remember, observed behavior changes.

Mistake #4: CEOs Are Not Always Creating

We’re all too busy, and the higher up the ladder we go, the more people who are clamoring to grab on to our feet. So CEOs are way too busy – but that’s life, and no excuse to not accomplish one of their primary functions – creating to communicate. Not just creating a vision and a culture, but fostering a climate of creativity in their companies and organizations. The lesson applies to all of us.

Problem #1:

CEOs are caught in the traditional academic, analytical, linear way of thinking. Facts and figures, financial pressures, decisions and tasks, people clamoring for decisions.

Solution #1

Expand the mind beyond your comfort zone – conduct personal brainstorming on problems – and even more so on blank slates of possibilities. Unfortunately we are seldom taught brainstorming in school, and there isn’t enough in business.

Here are the three rules of brainstorming:

  • Quantity not quality
  • Set a time limit of 3 to 5 minutes to force the mind to create fast
  • No pre-editing – let one idea trigger another.

It is amazing what you can come up with in a short period of time, and there are ideas that you never would have thought in the traditional way of ‘creating.’ Brainstorming also prevents writer’s block (and message creating block.) Using Post-its when brainstorming is a cornerstone of the Decker Grid System in creating speeches, presentations and messages, but it can be used for all types of situations. Mind Mappingg is another creative technique, which is most useful in taking notes.

And there are new creative ways to open up our minds and find innovative solutions. I’m fascinated with the growing popularity of “tagging” in the Web 2.0 world, and I think there are very new and effective ways to communicate around this concept – more to come about that on this blog. (If you want to see a good example of tagging now, look at Curt Wehrley’s site.)

Problem #2:

CEOs have other people create their speeches. Not good, although it is fine to have other people give feedback, do additional research, and augment the CEOs original ideas. The key point here is the CEO (and all of us) must originate our key points out of our passion if we want to be authentic and effective.

Solution #2:

Always create your own messages, use your own ideas. Be alert for stories, and other SHARP principles around those things that are important to the vision and direction of the company or organization. Jot down ideas continuously. Keep a humor notebook.

Problem #3:

With a few exceptions, the larger the organization, the more bureaucratic the mindset. And the stifling of creativity for new ideas. And too many CEOs are leading the bureaucracy, protected by underlings from the energetic hubbub of where the business (and vitality) is really happening.

Solution #3:

Lead the creative charge. Motivate others to create – continuously. Do this in these ways:

  • Cut down unnecessary meetings
  • Advocate brainstorming in regular meetings
  • Have unconventional offsite meetings
  • Create a culture of ‘is this the best we can do?’
  • Model creativity, not bureaucracy

We mentioned Steve Jobs as the#1 communicator of 2005 for many reasons, but an additional one we did not mention is that he is always inspiring others to greater heights of creativity by saying, “Is that your final version?” That doesn’t mean he’s easy to work with, but it does mean people will search for the newer, more creative, best, innovative solution before they bring it to him. There’s a lesson here.

It’s not easy being busy, but it’s just as easy being creatively busy as being boringly busy. Plus it’s more successful, and more fun!

Mistake #5: CEOs Are Not ALWAYS Communicating Vision

Communicate vision, all the time, relentlessly, up – down – and sidewise.

The #1 job of a CEO and any leader for that matter, is to continuously communicate vision – the vision (mission, goal, purpose) of the company or organization. This seems obvious, but I think there are three reasons why too many CEOs make this mistake.

1. They get insulated mentally.

In Mistake #4 we talked about the bureaucratic mindset stultifying creativity. That same atmosphere, along with layers of people between the executive and the customer, can quench the visionary mind of the executive if s/he doesn’t actively work against it.

The best CEOs live and breathe their vision. They ARE the vision.

Jim Collins wrote two books that emphasized this – in his “Good To Great” he wrote of the Level 5 Leader who might not have been “charismatic” in the traditional sense (though it helps – see Mistake #3 ), but every one of the leaders of those ‘great’ companies was passionate about the vision of their company, (vision being the essence – more on this later). And remember that in his first book “ Built To Last ” Collins had the subtitle “Successful Habits of Visionary Companies”. Companies without vision just do not last. Just as people without vision do not accomplish much.

Too many CEOs think the formal one page “Vision Statement” that every employee may have to memorize takes care of the vision thing. It does not.

What to do:

Shorten the vision to a sentence. Two at the most. The essence of a company or organization.

  • Starbucks: “Starbucks will be the premier purveyor of the finest coffee in the world while maintaining our uncompromising principles while we grow.”
  • Henry Ford: “We will build a motor car for the great multitude.”
  • Pixar Animation: “To tell stories. To make real films. To make the world’s first completely animated feature film.”
  • Lead by walking around. Get out there. Although Tom Peters saw “managing by wandering around” as the basis of leadership and excellence, and called it the “technology of the obvious”, very few CEOs actually do it. What better way to communicate vision than to walk around – have lunch in the company cafeteria, walk the halls, be seen on the floor.
  • Jack Welch, CEO of General Electric, said that winning companies fully engage all of their people – and you can’t do that if you spend most of your time at executive staff meetings, or at the computer.
  • Use other media.
  • Use emails. Put a catchy phrase, or even your one sentence vision, at the end of your emails in your signature, rather than the common and bland corporate disclaimer, or nothing. Although email is text, and cannot convey the nuance of tone and visual impact in person, it can be useful, and it costs little in precious time.
  • And think of all the time we spend on the phone – use it creatively. Keep your vision top of mind and you’ll be surprised how many opportunities there are to mention it. And remember that the phone can convey emotion (enthusiasm, energy, excitement) far better than an email.
  • Use the Bully Pulpit. Although the Bully Pulpit refers to the Presidency, all CEOs have a bully pulpit that can be used with vigor.

Don’t worry about having a Vision and Mission and Aim and Purpose and Goal, etc. Just communicate the essence.

Bill Hybels, the founder of Willow Creek Church, one of the largest churches in America as well as the Willow Creek Association that teaches and leads thousands of other churches. He also wrote the great book “Courageous Leadership”, where he disagrees with those leadership gurus who distinguish between a “vision” statement, a “mission” statement, and a “purpose” statement. What folks really need to know and remember, says Hybels, is “the main thing.”

Communicate the ‘main thing’ relentlessly.

Think of fresh ways. Look for stories that reflect the vision through customers and employees, and beyond. Look for metaphors and stories in daily events, nature, the animal world, the news, etc. Then communicate that vision at meetings, lunches, in the hall and of course in more formal speeches. Telling your story in an interesting, informative and entertaining way – whether it be to your clients, employees or fans – is essential to the success of your business.

2. They Get Insulated Physically

In large companies it is particularly hard to get to see many customers, much less employees. And the vision is critical for both – what to do?

What to do:

3. There is no vision

Ask most people in business and they will not know the vision of their company. Ask most CEOs and too often there will not be a precise, distinctive one sentence answer. And there IS always a vision – it just needs to be thought of and articulated.

What to do:

Nothing great is accomplished with caution.

Risk a little in moving a vision out of the comfort zone. OK, you say, some company just make widgets, and they are no different from any others. Beg to differ. If there is NO distinctive, they won’t be in business long.

Big visions are great, but even a small vision is better than none – whether it’s customer or  employee based, benefit or feature based, micro or macro based, local or national based, price or quality based, etc. There is always something, and ideally there is something cosmic to it.

One of the great vision casters was Teddy Roosevelt who said this on national greatness:

“Like all Americans, I like big things; big prairies, big forests and mountains, big wheat-fields, railroads, — and herds of cattle, too, — big factories, steamboats, and everything else.”

Enthusiasm is the engine of action.

Thomas John Watson, Sr. was the founder of IBM and he said, “The great accomplishments of man have resulted from the transmission of ideas of enthusiasm.”

I kind of like how Teddy Roosevelt put it:, “Get action. Seize the moment. Man was never intended to become an oyster.”

Here are some classic vision castings to stimulate YOUR vision casting – for after all, we all are CEOs of something or someone, if even ourselves:

If we are to survive, we must have ideas, vision, and courage. These things are rarely produced by committees. Everything that matters in our intellectual and moral life begins with an individual confronting his own mind and conscience in a room by himself. -Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr.

A vision is not a vision unless it says yes to some ideas and no to others, inspires people and is a reason to get out of bed in the morning and come to work. -Gifford Pinchot

The very essence of leadership is that you have to have vision. You can’t blow an uncertain trumpet. -Theodore Hesburgh

The mind is the limit. As long as the mind can envision the fact that you can do something, you can do it – as long as you really believe 100 percent. -Arnold Schwarzenegger

“People ask the difference between a leader and a boss. The leader leads, and the boss drives.” -Theodore Roosevelt

“I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the Earth.” -John F. Kennedy

8 comments on “The Five Biggest Mistakes CEOs Make in Speaking

  1. Pingback: Plastic vs. Authentic – Insights from the Republican Debates | Decker Blog

  2. Wow- comprehensive!
    I couldn’t agree more about not reading speeches. It’s not just the eye contact thing, it’s a lack of connection with the people who are actually in the room.
    I sat through a 2-hour read speech a few weeks ago, and started hallucinating, it was so dull.

  3. Where do I obtain some of the Decker Grid Folders. I have use the Decker Grid System for years – ever since I first heard Bert present on the subject. Mike K.

  4. If I could be so bold as to add one more mistake and make it seven (along with the lack of practice).
    The CEO is supposed to be a communicator of the vision and for the corporation.
    Doctors, Nurses, Realtors, and many others are required by law to get continuing education to keep on top of their profession. They may spend hours each month on the average.
    Yet for something as important as communicating in behalf of the corporation there is no continuing education.
    To read a blog like yours would only take 7 minutes and another 5 minutes to think about and absorb.

  5. If I could be so bold as to add one more mistake and make it seven (along with the lack of practice).
    The CEO is supposed to be a communicator of the vision and for the corporation.
    Doctors, Nurses, Realtors, and many others are required by law to get continuing education to keep on top of their profession. They may spend hours each month on the average.
    Yet for something as important as communicating in behalf of the corporation there is no continuing education.
    To read a blog like yours would only take 7 minutes and another 5 minutes to think about and absorb.

  6. NSA Blog Review 1: Bert Decker – Create Your Communications Experience

    Heres the very first of my planned series of blog reviews. I thought Id start with the first blog on the Blogroll.
    Bert Decker: Create Your Communications Experience
    Blogging since: July 10, 2005
    Posting Frequency: 4-6 times monthly

  7. CEOs as Speakers

    For those executives who have to make speeches (which is all of you), take a look at The Five Biggest Mistakes CEO’s Make in Speaking, on Bert Decker’s communications blog. I might quarrel a tad bit with Fred about the

  8. All good stuff – but I think you missed one!
    They don’t practice. The ones I’ve trained recently seemed to think that presenting wasn’t a physical thing but an intellectual one. As such, they thought, it could be prepared for “in their head”.
    How wrong they were!