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Public Speaking, Private Hell

For some CFOs, giving a speech can be nerve-wracking affair. Here's how to win over an audience.
Joan UrdangDecember 1, 2001

Once upon a time, Given Imaging Ltd. wanted to go public. Now, this company had a fascinating product: a pill containing a tiny video camera to take pictures inside the small intestine. But its CFO, Zvi Ben David, had a problem: Investors didn’t know much about Given, or whether it might be a good investment. To live happily ever after, he’d need to tell a good story.

It’s commonplace, of course, for analysts to refer to the product description and performance numbers as “the company story.” And for this and other types of presentations, classes on public speaking have become a normal course of study for CFOs. But some speech experts argue that by using narrative techniques, drawing on case studies or basic analogies, bringing in examples from their own experience, and enhancing their tales with graphics and even music, finance executives can make an impact beyond anything they learn from a speaking coach.

“With well-planned stories, you can break down barriers and get closer to the emotional drivers of clients and colleagues,” says C. Peter Giuliano, chairman of Englewood, New Jersey-based Executive Communications Group, which offers a one-day workshop called Executive Storytelling. About 180 businesspeople have taken the course, usually in groups of around 10, since the workshops began four years ago.

Of course, Ben David didn’t have to be a Hans Christian Andersen to help pull off the successful $1.25 million IPO of the Yoqneam, Israel-based medical-equipment company in October. Still, he says, his presentations “were designed to tell a very human story,” even though his main messages focused on market opportunities. He notes that “some of the people I was talking to are familiar with these kinds of [medical] problems,” which in the past required more-invasive endoscopy procedures. By engaging analysts with graphic accounts of patients who will be able to take advantage of this alternative diagnostic tool, then using a video clip of images transmitted by these cameras to take analysts through an actual procedure, he believes he made his point better.

Given’s IPO drew extra attention in the press, too, by being the first in the United States since mid-August. (Given was in the second day of road shows in the United States on September 11.) Further, the company’s breakthrough technology became part of major medical-oriented coverage on the business pages of newspapers and magazines.

These news “stories” were useful to Ben David, too, because “the investment world has seen everything, so you have to transmit in a short time why your company is a good investment, and why people should listen to you.”

Help from Mighty Mouse

CFO Sharlene Abrams sometimes spins her yarns for employees at Mercury Interactive Corp., a Sunnyvale, California, software maker. Finance executives, she notes, must “be enthusiastic and capture the audience’s attention”; the narrative approach works for her.

At times, Abrams builds presentations around cartoon figures and movie characters, and adds musical themes. For one, a shot of Mighty Mouse — he’s there to save the day — was linked to the commandment to involve finance on all deal terms. To enhance teamwork between finance and contract workers, she used the Godfather quote, “Never take sides against the family.” She once entered a sales meeting to Pink Floyd’s “Money,” a song that uses the beat of ka-chinging cash registers.

In a training course on revenue recognition, Abrams turns to case studies — one about a customer who submits an authorization to purchase that certifies it is “nonbinding and cancelable.” She then grills her audience about whether this counts as revenue. In another case, she creates the scenario of a customer placing a complex order on December 30, tells how certain fictional employees qualified it as revenue after scheduling a future meeting to discuss “any open issues,” then asks if they were correct.

They weren’t. The proper approach “was to unbundle the deal” and count only unconditional commitments as revenue. By asking them, though, she gets good information about the listeners.

“If someone raises his hand, I know I’m watching his deals,” she notes with a smile.

Tips for Effective Storytelling

  • Incorporate. Weave in case studies, analogies, or examples to make your point.
  • Keep it simple. Avoid complicated epics. Pare the story to the essentials.
  • Add spice. Eye contact, pauses, a strong voice, and facial expressions make stories come alive.
  • Make it appropriate. Elements of shock and mystery can work, but omit grisly or depressing details.
  • Offer transitions. Listeners shouldn’t wonder why you digressed.
  • Practice. Tape-record yourself to help you figure out where to punch up dull areas.

Source: Executive Communications Group