Most people would generally agree that a great deal — probably most — of the presentations we have to sit through in the business world are awful. They are all too often passionless, boring, and dense with unreadable PowerPoint slides.

And that sorry state of affairs raises the question: if that’s the norm, why should things be any better? Maybe boring is OK. Why is good public speaking important to the business world?

I believe that good public speaking is important for several reasons.

Bad presentations are an opportunity lost.

It’s expensive and time-consuming to gather groups of employees, or shareholders, or customers, or the general public together. You should have a good reason for doing so. And you should make the most of the time spent together. Especially in this virtual age, gathering a group of people is an enormous opportunity to move them, to inspire them, to re-excite them about your company, your products, or your mission.

Bad presentations can hurt your organization.

If a leader of an organization gives a bad speech, some portion of the audience will conclude one of the following things:

  • The company has lackluster leadership and therefore won’t do well in the future
  • The organization is wasting my time; I should look elsewhere for another job
  • This company is an embarrassment and it doesn’t deserve my best efforts.

You don’t want employees concluding these kinds of damaging things. You want them concluding the opposite of these notions, in fact. Make your presentations good.

Good presentations can turn around a bad situation.

Because of the public nature of a speech, it’s a great opportunity to right a wrong done to employees, or correct a misapprehension, or change a perception. Things said from the stage to an assembled majority of an organization have the force of corporate legislation. Words uttered by a chief executive in public can heal. Employees will act on what is proclaimed, and an organization headed in the wrong direction can be righted.

Good public speaking can create enormous opportunities for innovation and healthy competition amongst employees.

A good public speech can launch a decade-long quest for the moon, or inspire people to compete for a prize for the best new product, or find new ways to save money and make processes more efficient. A good public speech is a great way to throw down the gauntlet to the assembled people to find new solutions to difficult problems.

A good presentation can change the world.

Every presidential campaign in the last 100 years was launched with a presentation by the candidate. That presentation was an enormous opportunity for that candidate to lay out the basics of his or her campaign, to inspire the faithful, and to woo the uncommitted. When the stakes are high, a bad speech won’t do. But every speech has that same opportunity within it. The public nature of a presentation means that all eyes will be on you, the speaker, in a way that doesn’t happen often. Don’t miss the opportunity to change the world — for the better.

Three ways to tell that your company needs a communications intervention

1. You circle the wagons when things go wrong.

Organizations instinctively circle the communication wagons and protect themselves when attacked from the outside. That’s classic organizational behavior, and very tough to circumvent. But all the case studies — both successes and failures — show that circling the wagons leads to far worse problems later on.

2. You have no regular relations with the press.

If you don’t have a dialogue going on during normal times, there will be no trust established and you’ll have no resilience and nothing banked to draw upon.

3. You have no regular means of communicating upwards.

Even worse than poor external communications is a lack of robust, regular internal communications. And I don’t mean annual reviews or managers talking to their direct reports. All of that is too fraught with self-interest to be useful. You need ongoing ways of polling internally and getting information about customers, products, processes and services from the front line up.

How to practice good corporate communications

Of course, if your company is not practicing good, open corporate communications, then no amount of even great public speaking can turn the deeper problem around — though it can help, and it can start a communications Renaissance. But the occasional speech about transparency doesn’t mean that you’re an open company.

First, it starts from the top. Companies get their marching orders from the top of the organization. If the CEO and her direct reports are open, admit their mistakes, and practice real transparency, that gives everyone else permission to do the same. Conversely, if the executive team is closed and paranoid, everyone else will be, too.

Second, regularly canvas (anonymously) opinion from the troops. In times of yore, a good king or general would walk in disguise amongst the people or troops in order to find out what they were thinking. Nowadays, we have opinion polls. You have to develop a systemic way to get good, hard information about employee satisfaction, or you’re not being serious about communications. Do the same with customers, too.

Third, create healthy information loops. All leaders understand the need for communicating important organizational information to their employees. But many fewer realize that it’s incredibly important for that information to flow both ways. Top executives cannot rely on their direct reports – or their direct reports — to send them this information unfiltered. Direct reports have too much at stake, and even the most open and brave will color the information in ways that will ultimately undermine the organization — even if they don’t mean to do so.

Fourth, be ready for the crisis. The real test of an organization’s openness is crisis. That’s when the companies that are instinctively closed will revert to type — and damage themselves in the process, sometimes irrevocably. And the reverse is also true. Recent corporate history is littered with both kinds of examples, from the Tylenol scare in the 80s (openness saved the company, the brand, and the product) to BP in the last months (lack of openness sunk a CEO and quite possibly the company).

Finally, over-communicate. Even beloved companies get into trouble by being secretive. A classic example is Apple and Steve Jobs. His instinct for secrecy means that when something did go wrong (the iPhone 4 dropped calls) the press was all over the company and Jobs because there was not much basic trust there. Jobs has made the mistake over and over again of trying too hard to control the press instead of working with it. You have to over-communicate, and communicate both the good and the bad.


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