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Talk the talk

Article originally published in CEO magazine

Public speaking remains a mysterious and mercurial skill to many leaders and not just those in the political sphere. This need not be the case. An understanding of the basics of public speaking and the speechwriting process is important to anyone who wishes to translate their command of the boardroom into the command of a conference hall.

Firstly, let us debunk the prevailing myth that being a CEO equates to being a good speaker. In fact, many chief executives rise to the top not because of their ability to speak, but in spite of it. In today's business environment, it is impossible to overstate the importance of public speaking. It is a universal barometer of leadership the world over.

Seasoned public speakers not only enhance the corporate brand, they can also promote ‘brand me’, something vital given that the average tenure of a CEO in the UK is a mere four years. Consider Steve Jobs of Apple in the US and Sir Stuart Rose of Marks & Spencer in the UK. In terms of personality, style and content they could not be more different, but are equally comfortable on camera or on a podium, and maximise these opportunities to get their message across.

The good news is that even the most confident speakers can improve what they say, and how they say it. The key is taking a holistic look at the process of getting your message across, from the speech itself, to the media, to who drafts it.

Incoherent ideas lead to incoherent writing and speeches so the first step in drafting any speech or presentation should be to define its key points. Whenever possible these should be encapsulated in a single theme. This is the best defence against creating a messy and muddled speech.

Focus on what the key messages have in common, and how to bridge from one to another. Consider a CEO who has been invited to speak on the broad theme of 'the future' of their company. The company has recently opened an office overseas, announced new corporate responsibility standards and set a target of increasing global profits by 5%. Each topic is potentially interesting in its own right, but would be far more memorable if recast as part of the overarching theme of 'responsible globalisation'.

Ultimately, no one remembers a speech word for word, but they do remember two things: the take-home message and whether they liked it or not. Get the first right and you are halfway to achieving the second. Finding it difficult to convey the essence of your argument? Then try seeing the speech through the eyes of an imaginary foe and set about prebutting their criticisms.

If the speech has no discernible key messages, cogent theme or take-home message then it probably belongs on the long list of invitations that should have been declined. Paradoxically, such a problem can bring real business benefits in the form of a wake-up call. There are few better ways to examine a business strategy than to talk about it. But if the strategy cannot be distilled and communicated in a speech, then this is where the problem lies.

Speeches are too often drafted and delivered without consideration for the most important people involved: the audience. The people you are addressing should never be viewed as a single entity. They are collections of individuals and sub-audiences, split by everything from the crudest demographics (sex, age, race, religion, income group) to more intangible factors (their views, opinions and expectations).

The challenge is to speak to them all as individuals, without falling into the trap of being contradictory, tangential or appearing to be all things to all people.

Do not forget the audience beyond the audience. By simple word of mouth or through the media any speech can reach beyond the confines of the conference hall.

Yet despite this, the cardinal rule of never playing to the gallery is broken with surprisingly regularity. Gerald Ratner, former chief executive of the eponymously named UK-based Ratners’ Group, famously exploded the old marketing mantra and myth that all publicity equals good publicity.

Speaking at the Institute of Directors, Ratner joked that the company’s earrings were ‘cheaper than an M&S prawn sandwich but probably wouldn’t last as long’. The smattering of laughter cost the company half a billion pounds. Ratner lost his job and gained the dubious honour of inadvertently coining the phrase ‘to do a Ratner’.

Private speaking engagements should be approached in the same way as any other. Sessions that are closed to the media at conferences are the most tempting to journalists for obvious reasons.

The key to securing positive media coverage is to understand the news media. Do not be surprised, for instance, if they carry none of your carefully crafted words if you grant them an interview afterwards. Exclusivity trumps reproduced speech remarks every time.

Employing a speechwriter can improve the speechwriting process but it is certainly no guarantee or shortcut to success. The partnership between speaker and writer is absolutely pivotal and it must be made to work.

The speechwriter’s role is multifarious: part mind reader and part writer. Ideally he or she will also be an honest critic, too, in terms of the substance of the message and speech delivery. Listening to someone with zero experience of being a business leader suggesting a completely different way to frame an argument or deliver a line is not always easy but the better the relationship, the better the results.

How much does this expertise cost? Speechwriters' salaries are commensurate with other PR advisors, be it in-house, agency or freelance, although attracting the best can cost significantly more. What is more important, however, is the potential cost of not having this expertise, from the reputation of the speaker to the company's image and share price.