Uh, Is This Microphone On?

Experts say anyone can become a better public speaker — even a CFO.
Laura DeMarsMarch 1, 2007

When Tom White first began to move up the corporate ladder at a major accounting firm, he often spoke to various internal audiences — without great success. “I didn’t get any high marks,” he notes, “which was a real wake-up call.”

White sought the training he needed from communication development firm Speakeasy and venerable public-speaking how-to outfit Dale Carnegie Training. Today, as finance chief of Hub Group Inc., White feels much more comfortable about his skills. “You can tell when speakers don’t have training,” he says, “especially CFOs. It’s an uphill battle for us, because we rarely anticipate having to speak in public, and when we do we often rely on technical and quantitative information.”

CFOs increasingly find themselves confronting eager audiences, as boards, Wall Street, and other constituencies call upon them for greater insight into corporate performance and strategy. “The best CFOs understand that they don’t just provide numbers,” says Sam Silvers, a principal with Deloitte’s financial management consulting practice. “They ask questions, offer opinions, and serve as catalysts for change.”

Almost anyone can become a more effective public speaker. First and foremost, rehearse. Michael Graham, senior congressional lobbyist for the American Dental Association, says that whether you’re giving a formal speech or a quick presentation, or simply anticipating a chance to offer an opinion during a meeting, practicing in front of a mirror can be invaluable.

Similarly, a class in which your presentations are videotaped can be useful because, as Dale Carnegie CEO Peter Handal says, “most people’s self-perceptions differ from how the audience regards them. They don’t realize, for example, that their voice does not carry, that they sometimes need to over-enunciate, or that their hand gestures can’t be seen by people in the back of the room.” Licia Hahn, who heads a consulting firm in New York that advises executives on communications strategies, says video training combined with private coaching is the fastest way to improve presentation skills.

Second, stay on message. “If I can’t get my message across in three minutes or less,” Graham says, “I know the audience will start to tune out.” CFO White agrees, adding, “You have to remember that you’re speaking to be understood, not just to sound smart.” Windy recitations of numbers, statistics, and trend data may seem compelling to you, but as Bill Rosenthal, CEO of communications coaching firm Communispond, says, “you have to aggregate your information in a way that tells a compelling story. You have to make the numbers meaningful.”

And finally, know your audience. Handal suggests that this maxim be taken literally: if time allows, walk around and chat with audience members before giving your speech or presentation. A little personal bonding can translate into increased attention and consideration.

So too can humor, which is why so many presenters open with a joke. As Harvard Medical School psychology professor Carol Kauffman says, humor creates “a positive emotion in the room, which in turn makes people more likely to be open to new ideas.” So if you hope to persuade the board that the time is right for the company to create a new special-purpose entity and you can’t tell a joke, open with a New Yorker cartoon. Maybe two.

Anticipate the Critics

It’s also helpful to anticipate objections and rehearse how you’ll respond. Attorneys do this as a matter of course, and Jeffrey E. Stone, a partner and head of the global Trial Department at law firm McDermott Will & Emery, says one effective technique is to build some objections into your presentation and address them before anyone else can even raise them. That, he says, will make you more persuasive because it will be clear that you’ve done your homework.

You can also help your cause by simply avoiding some common mistakes. For example, “Don’t commit ‘death by PowerPoint,’” says Dale Carnegie’s Handal. “Keep slides to a maximum of six lines of text, six words per line, with as little jargon as possible.” And “don’t equivocate,” advises Sanford Saunders, an attorney at Greenberg Traurig. “Don’t use phrases like ‘I think’ or ‘I believe’ unless you truly are unsure, because [such expressions] undermine your credibility.”

Also, don’t rule out some additional training — even if your presentation at the family dinner table earns a standing ovation. A neutral third party can help raise anyone’s skill level, and the time commitment can be minimal (see “Speech Therapists” at the end of this article). “I once sat at a board meeting at which the CFO made a very compelling case as to why the company should not follow the lead of a competitor,” says Saunders. “He faced a lot of skepticism but he stood his ground, and later it transpired that the competitor had some accounting issues. That CFO kept his company out of trouble.”

Score one for the power of persuasion, a power that finance chiefs need now more than ever, but which many lack. Sometimes, it’s clear, the numbers don’t speak for themselves.

Laura DeMars is a reporter at CFO.

Speech Therapists

Getting Schooled in the Art of Persuasive Speaking

  • The American Management Association offers communication-, negotiation-, and interpersonal-skills seminars that run from two to three days and start at $1,795 for non-AMA members. They are held at locations across the country.
  • Dale Carnegie Training offers classes internationally, starting at $199 for a one-day seminar and covering a variety of leadership and presentation skills, such as how to make friends and influence people in business.
  • Communispond offers a variety of courses on presentation skills for top executives in North America, Europe, and Asia. Classes are kept to a 16-person maximum. Its most popular, a two-day seminar, costs approximately $15,000. — L.D.