Wednesday, June 23, 2010

You Gotta Believe

Managers transmit information. Leaders transmit belief.

Recently we saw two examples of leaders trying to transmit belief to the American people on TV.

The first was a 60-second BP commercial by its Chairman, Tony Hayward, apologizing on behalf of his company for the Gulf oil spill and pledging to set things right. The second was a 17-minute talk by President Obama from the Oval Office explaining the status of the cleanup efforts and the government's plan to design a strategy to restore the Gulf region.

Normally if you went and compared their skills at persuasive communication, President Obama wins in a walk because he has a well-deserved reputation as a charismatic speaker, whereas Mr. Hayward has a well-deserved reputation as a gaffe machine who makes Joe Biden seem a model of decorum and temperance.

In my view though, both failed.

They both read their comments off a teleprompter and lost any chance at transmitting belief and connecting with the American people on an emotional level. They both hit on how many feet of boom have been laid out, how many ships deployed, how many thousands of volunteers and troops on the ground - a list of facts best recited by someone below their pay grade.

President Obama, perhaps feeling the tug of his lawyer/college professor DNA, gave us a teach-in on the Gulf Oil Spill, repeating information we've been bombarded with 24/7 on cable TV. He sounded like someone getting through a committee update, not a leader transmitting belief and confidence to a severely wounded region and its bewildered, abused and angry citizenry.

Tony Hayward could have been reading from a Hallmark card he picked up at a convenience store for all the impact it had. He had no visceral connection with his words; no emotional intent in his delivery; and a flat lifeless tone that left viewers unconvinced, uninspired and unimpressed.

One might say: "Wait a minute, Reagan used a teleprompter." Quite true, but with a huge difference.

Let's face it, the man knew his way around a camera. Reagan's talk from the Oval Office on the day of the Challenger disaster was a masterpiece of messaging and a model of a leader transmitting belief using a teleprompter. He had two distinct advantages - a terrific speeechwriter, Peggy Noonan, who understood how to combine lean language with soaring imagery, and a lifetime in front of the camera making people believe.

So what's a President or CEO to do? Trash the teleprompters? Fire the speechwriters? Go watch sail boat races or play golf?

No, No, and (duh) No!

They can and should find opportunities to connect on camera or in person with nothing at all. No notes; no teleprompter; no slide deck; no written speech. Just a mental outline of their story and their preparation, confidence and wits.

If it's a video message like a webcast to the people in their company or in the country, make it short. Reagan's Challenger talk was 4:27. Kennedy's famous Ich Bein Ein Berliner speech was 4:42. The Gettysburg Address was 270 words and Martin Luther King's iconic I Have A Dream speech was a little over 10 minutes.

If it's a Hook and Hammer for a Town Hall, do three minutes on either side of the duller-than-dishwater details and farm that part out to some person in your organization who's really good at it. The audience will have no problem recognizing you as the true leader and will see the real you, not the phoney-baloney you, reading bare bullets off a boring slide.

Sure, it's scary. Sure, you might make a mistake or flub a line or make a gaffe. As evidenced in the Obama and Hayward examples though; you can have all the money, power, and technology and even read the darn thing - and still fail.

So as a CEO, what have you got to lose?

You do TV interviews all the time with no notes. You sit on all-star global panels with no notes. You probably did your last wedding toast with no notes. Why not go down to your in-house TV studio if you have one. Fire up the camera. Look into that little red light and just talk. Do it several times until you're convinced that you didn't embarass yourself and then let it fly.

Your colleagues and employees may be thrilled that you pushed past all the boilerplate B.S. and finally talked to them as adults.

Your alternative is to wait until you're playing pinochle out on the front porch at the assisted living facility and you turn to your card buddies and say:

"This is what I would have said back when I was chairman of the board - if it wasn't for those damned lawyers".

Take a shot!

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