Forgetting lines, nervous fidgeting, botching PowerPoint slides, and dealing with hecklers – it’s every speaker’s nightmare.
As a leader, you are your communications. Your success in leading a team, delivering a speech, winning clients, and representing a dynamic brand in front of a range of audiences is essential.
There’s no replacement for embodying the basics of structure, messaging, storytelling, and body language – all of which come with leaders refining their communication skills in public speaking and media training.
A 2021 research article noted that 40% fear speaking in public in front of an audience, though several studies noted that public speaking and presentation skills are critical for career success.
“If a leader has an authentic and engaging public profile, this reflects well on the company’s reputation,” says Eve Hester-Wyne, director and co-founder of HWM. Leaders are often called upon to speak publicly and to the media to announce good news, justify bad news, or manage crises. “They need to get their messages across accurately while controlling the narrative. This takes practice.”
On another note, Will Hardie, co-founder and Chief of Media Training at the International School of Communication points out that it’s crucial for leaders to train for public speaking and interviews because reputation is a primary driver of corporate value. “More than 90% of the market capitalization of the S&P500 is now comprised of intangible assets, including brands and intellectual capital. Spokespeople are the custodians of reputation. Interviews are a bright spotlight under which they can either shine or burn.”
He added, “Media training is an investment in skills required to make the most of that moment to achieve something strategic – to change how key stakeholders think, feel and behave.”
With constant changes in the media landscape, it’s also vital that business leaders adopt. While skills in interviews and structured situations like news conferences and panel discussions are still pertinent, execs must learn to cope with informal new media, such as long-form podcasts.
Hardie comments, “Leaders need a much more authentic and conversational style. You can’t chat with Joe Rogan as if you were being interviewed by a CNBC anchor. It’s excruciating to hear people try to force old-school formal controlled messaging into what’s supposed to be a genuine and informal chat.”
Now, there’s a rising trend of broadening the face and voice of an organization beyond a company’s chief executives. “Having a broader base of spokespeople also enables a larger volume of communication output because top leaders have scarce time for media duties. These new tiers of spokespeople also need to be trained to make the most of opportunities and avoid risks,” says Hardie.
Of course, talking to the public and the media comes with risks: giving up control of your brand’s message, and more so, you may only have one chance to get it right.
On the plus side, public speaking engagements and interviews give leaders the opportunities to get their messaging across to a very large audience or specialist publications and channels for almost zero cost. “A message delivered via news media or trusted independent media carries much greater impact than the same message distributed by paid channels,” says Hardie. “They are measurably more likely to believe you and remember what you say because the editorial format adds a filter of trust. This is the proactive side of media training: knowing what to say and how to say it to capitalize on the credibility impact of ‘earned media.’”
HANDLING DIFFICULT CONVERSATIONS
Talking about difficult issues, such as mistakes and failures, can be tough.
“Always approach a situation with transparency, empathy, and a clear plan,” says Lisa Hugo, a public speaking coach specializing in senior-level executives and entrepreneurs. “Act quickly and take ownership. Be honest and open. Share facts, show understanding, and offer a clear plan of action. Keep dialogues open.”
Creating a communication plan outlining how the team should handle difficult issues is essential, says Hugo. She also suggests being wary of how you sound: “Practice through role play and constructive feedback.”
On the other hand, when communicating difficult issues, Hester-Wyne points out business leaders often think they need to be on friendly terms with the press, or at the other end of the scale, that they’re the enemy. Both approaches are wrong, says Hester-Wyne. “A media interview is a transactional piece of theater, with both parties contributing. Of course, everyone should be courteous, but it’s not personal.”
To prepare for such conversations, Hester-Wyne advises to be prepared with your “why” and the purpose of your conversation, followed by knowing the audience and, finally, being clear on the message. “If you’re clear on the messages you want to communicate, you won’t get side-tracked.”
Being authentic is also important, says Hardie. While formality used to be a default tone in corporate communication, a more conversational language is better received today. “Authenticity is a ‘hygiene factor’ – without it, people smell manipulation. It is better to humanize your organization than to speak like an institution. If in doubt, don’t use wording that sounds clunky coming out of your mouth when spoken aloud.”
BUSINESS LEADERS MUST BE CRISIS-READY
Communication is crucial in responding to any crisis.
According to a Capterra survey, 98% of business leaders who have activated their crisis communications plan say it was effective, with 77% saying it was very effective.
Meanwhile, the same report noted that 72% of business leaders would broaden the scope of their crisis communications plan – even more would increase practice in advance.
The biggest mistake that leaders often make is failing to prepare, says Hester-Wyne. Business leaders who put a lot of preparation and resources into planning are ready for potential crises.
But perhaps, a critical point is immediacy.
When it comes to containing reputational damage from a negative event, an organization’s ability to start communicating immediately, getting the leadership visible, and maintaining a steady flow of updates can be hard to implement when the corporate culture is private. Hardie says, “Staying quiet and hoping for the best can be a damaging strategy because this creates an information vacuum, which inevitably gets filled by the voices of critics and competitors.”
“Authenticity is essential if we want people to trust us,” concludes Hardie. “This balance needs to be calibrated carefully to an organization’s social and cultural environment – Western crisis models can’t cut and paste in the MENA region.”