How to be strategic about public speaking
Public speaking is a leadership role. You may speak in public yourself or you may write speeches or speech notes for your CEO and senior executives, or you may do all these things. Speeches are a powerful way to directly communicate with and influence target stakeholders. They offer a rare, face-to-face opportunity to influence a roomful of often-important people. If those people aren’t important to you, they’re not worth the effort of delivering a speech to them!
To successfully influence an audience, you need to tap into their emotions as well as their intellect. And you need to understand the fundamental elements of successful speeches.
Speech making is a core capability for a chief executive officer. CEOs of top US companies receive an average of 3-4 speech invitations a week, ie 175 per year, according to surveys.
The most prestigious speaking opportunities in the world (‘most valued podiums’) are the World Economic Forum, the US Business Roundtable [of CEOs], the Detroit Economic Club, and events staged by US Fortune and Businessweek magazines. The companies use speaking opportunities at conferences as a strategic tool to differentiate their company from their competitors.
Around 70% of corporate communication managers are responsible for advising their CEO on accepting invitations to speak at conferences. Their main criteria for accepting a speech invitation are: whether it is an influential audience (87%), a strategic fit (86%), a keynote versus panel role (68%), a potential forum to demonstrate thought leadership (61%) or whether the forum has prestige value (56%).
Strategically initiating contact
How do the companies decide which invitations to accept? And what do they do about initiating contact for desirable speaking opportunities?
Receiving speech invitations is good for the corporate ego, but you should think strategically before agreeing to step up to the podium or recommending this to your chief. A strategic speaking program means achieving a balance of proactive and reactive activities. It means weighing up the amount of executive time available to undertake such activities. It means deciding whether a speech is the most effective way of communicating a message compared with alternatives. It means considering the types of issues your organization should discuss to its advantage in public, and your objectives in airing such issues.
Your organization’s speaking program should be developed only after considering how the speeches could support the accomplishment of your organizational mission and relevant goals. Be specific. You need to demonstrate exactly how each speech will support your mission and goals, preferably in measurable ways.
For instance, if one of the purposes of your speech is to announce an exciting new product, it is easy to show the link with your corporate goal that states, “…provide innovative and easy-to-use products and services” [Australia Post].
Likewise, if you are the Chairman of Southwest Airlines, you might speak about the way the airline’s policy of introducing promising new services has increased customer satisfaction and profitability. Therefore your speech would truly support the corporate goal: “Creativity and innovation are encouraged for improving the effectiveness of Southwest Airlines.”
However, the first draft of a speech may just have an indirect, rather woolly link with key corporate goals. You would need to revise the text to bridge the gap. For instance, a recent actual marketing conference theme was: “Positioned for success.” Your speech would have to show:
- how your organization has had a successful marketing strategy,
- how you suggest the members of the audience could use this shared information to position themselves for success
- how this links with your corporate goal of “maintaining a positive image in the community.”
The composition of the audience in each case is important. Where possible, you need to appear before influential audiences and you need to decide exactly why they are important to you, what call to action you want to give the audience, and, again, how their response can be measured.
Give a score to speaking opportunities
You can evaluate the key aspects of a speaking opportunity by scoring them as follows. You can allocate a weighting to the factors you consider vital, say out of a maximum of 10 points, and then you can decide a score for the extent to which each factor applies, again out of 10. Then you can multiply the weighting points by the score for each factor to reach a subtotal for that factor. Then add up the subtotals of the key factors to reach a total score for that speech. In this way you can arithmetically compare the merits of one speech opportunity against another. This technique is used in market research. A large part of this requires subjective judgment, but at least it results in figures that can be used for direct comparisons.
Since decisions on speaking activities are relatively subjective, you are likely to be challenged at some stage as to why you have included or excluded particular speaking opportunities. Or perhaps someone will ask you what your speaking program has achieved. By documenting your criteria as in the table, you can easily justify your decisions. In fact, you will look very professional.
You need to consider each speaking opportunity on its merits to determine whether it is a more effective alternative than other forms of communication and relationship-building. Only when the opportunity is a better alternative should you accept it. An exception may be if a low-key occasion provides good practice for a less experienced executive to hone their public speaking skills.
A note of caution: ideally every speaking opportunity is treated on its merits, but in real life you are likely to encounter exceptions. You may find your chairman or someone senior wants you or the chief to speak at a function or conference as a favor to someone else. In these sorts of cases you probably have to smile graciously and do the work. But make a note of these cases and document from the table the extent to which they diverge from strategic relevance. When the time is right, you can point out to the right people these examples and their nuisance value.
Speeches are time-intensive as well as stressful. They take up the valuable time and preoccupation of the CEO or relevant senior executives. You should take into account the amount of speaker time needed to cooperate in the research and development of the theme and objectives of the speech, to agree on the content, to review the content, rehearse the speech plus their return travel to the venue and the time spent in attending the event and delivering the speech. You also need to think about which executives, apart from the CEO, should represent your organization in public forums, and whether they need presentation skills training.
This article is adapted from the e-book, Deliver sparkling speeches and presentations by Kim Harrison.