CEOs don’t want to look too polished, because they think they’ll be branded as shallow.
A speechwriter friend of mine at a Fortune 100 company complained that CEOs all recognize that the TED Talk is The Way to Communicate. But then they refuse to do TED-style delivery. He recognized that part of the reason is because TED Talks take a ton of time and energy to prepare for.
“Practice when you feel like it,” advises recent TED Talker Nilofer Merchant.
And, even when you don’t feel like it. At least two weeks out from a big talk, start to deliver the talk with notes and ultimately without them. Memorize where possible. I say it to myself 15 minutes every day. And once right before bed. Then I get a full night of restful sleep so that some part of my brain commits it to memory. At one week out, I’ve moved to keywords on Post-it notes. By five days out, I am no longer looking at any notes. I usually wake up the full week before a talk with it playing in my mind. You want it in there, even though it won’t actually be the talk that’ll come out that day. There is the talk you plan on giving and the talk that you give. If you are great at performance and memorization, it’s quite possible for those to be one and the same. But the more important thing to happen is for you to know what you came to say and know it well.
Now, what CEO is going to sweat a speech like that?
But a more fundamental problem is: What CEO wants to be thought of—by investors, employees and maybe most importantly, by CEO peers—as someone so focused on public performance. And thus not focused on analysis, dealmaking and decision-making that we expect CEOs to be thoroughly absorbed in at all times.
And that self-conscious CEO has a point. Aside from Steve Jobs, whose performances we saw as the spearhead of the company’s new product sales, wouldn’t you harbor some suspicion about the vanity and greater ambition of a CEO who delivered a perfect TED Talk?
Not that there isn’t a mile of middle ground between TED perfection and the typical CEO speech. And not that TED Talks don’t model many of the tools—economy, focus, storytelling, personalization—that we urge our clients to use. But if TED is actually not the ideal in executive communication, then let’s not punish ourselves and our clients by pretending it is. —DM
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