Recently, a family friend asked me to provide some feedback with respect to corporate messaging (he’s the CEO of a company that’s anticipating an IPO in 2018). As part of the informal engagement, I listened to him undertake a mock investor roadshow presentation (with Q&A) and a mock quarterly earnings call.
Succinctly, my reaction to what I heard was: “Storytelling” – B(ish) grade; and “Public Speaking Skills” – D+. In other words, a very similar reaction I had while listening to thousands of such presentations when I was an institutional investor.
Prior to hearing my thoughts, he confessed that public speaking has always been his Achilles’ heel. Accordingly, he wanted frank, practical comments in that regard.
Rather than summarize my notes, I thought it would be more constructive to simply redact and reprint what I actually sent him (below) for the benefit of other pre-IPO and small-cap leaders.
As CEO, how you speak is critical
First and foremost, small-cap investors predominantly bet on jockeys, not horses. Accordingly, you need to speak as if your company and stock price depend on it… because they do.
Few executives are intuitively effective public speakers; it’s a craft that must be studied and constantly refined. And the movie doesn’t typically end well for CEOs who feel those axioms don’t apply to them.
Seasoned small-cap investors are forensic observers, who parse and re-parse everything they read and hear. Many have learned over the years that small-cap companies are risky enough on a good day, but when they are also operated by CEOs who are poor communicators, shareholder value is often even more elusive.
They are right.
Based on my experience watching and learning from articulate CEOs, here are some practical suggestions for how you can turn public speaking into an asset:
Fear. You mentioned that you were innately a little nervous about public speaking; that’s you and millions of others. A terrific, cost-effective way to overcome public speaking fear is to join your local Toastmasters club. I suggested Toastmasters recently to a CEO who I’ve known for years, and he all but laughed at me. He was making a big mistake (and providing, by the way, a poignant example of another common impediment to becoming a better speaker – arrogance).
Reading scripts. Though investors know that most CEOs are reading from scripts during earnings calls (and some investor presentations), it erodes investor confidence when CEOs haltingly/awkwardly read a script as if they’ve never seen it before (extremely common, by the way). When you listen to eloquent CEOs, you’d never know they were reading a script and it consequently inspires greater investor confidence. How do they do it? They prepare, and then they prepare some more. One seasoned CEO I know takes the following steps to (in his words) “take ownership” of a speaking script:
- Read the script all the way through 2-3 times.
- Then tape a full read-through on your phone.
- Listen to the taped version while following along with the script (noting on the script any places where the text doesn’t sound like fluid speech, and where pauses/emphasis would help).
- Edit the text to make it sound more like how you speak.
- Keep practicing… until the tape replays sound like you’re not reading from a script.
Kind of like how PGA Tour players get so skilled at chipping from awkward, terrible lies – they do it for hours every day when no one is watching.
Q&A. Flawless, extemporaneous speech is really hard. When you’re good at it, people take notice. When you’re bad at it, people take extra notice. In order to speak more artfully under the stress of investor Q&A, veteran CEOs have always told me that, while there are no magic elixirs, there are three important steps: preparation, video, and Henry Kissinger.
- Great CEOs want to have all the hardest (likely) questions in advance, and they practice the answers over and over again – both alone and with their teams/advisors – until they are succinct and seamless.
- High-performing CEOs also tape these sessions on their smartphones, because video doesn’t lie. Without video, you’re never going to see the inevitable changes in your speech cadence, tone, and the “um’s” and “ah’s” and “you know’s.”
- Henry Kissinger purportedly started out a press conference once by stating, “Does anyone have any questions for my answers?” Many experienced CEOs use every question as an opportunity to refocus attention toward a handful of themes (and meticulously rehearsed “theme bites”).
Remember, Q&A typically follows carefully-manicured scripts, so everything newly introduced regarding your speech and body language are amplified.
Three miscellaneous points. When in doubt: (1) don’t speculate – smart CEOs know there is nothing wrong with saying “I don’t know;” (2) don’t even get close to violating Reg. FD – loose lips always sink ships; and (3) don’t ramble – brevity inspires investor confidence more than long-windedness.
Controlling how you speak
Being a well-spoken CEO doesn’t mean that investors are going to buy your stock hand-over-fist. That said, otherwise high-quality companies operated by CEOs who are ineffective speakers will always underperform similarly situated peers.
I would also strongly recommend listening to earnings calls of some Fortune 100 companies, and regularly watching iconic speeches on YouTube. One CEO I know has a notebook where he writes down one key thing he learned from listening to a different CEO or orator each week – it’s a clever learning tool (and, it’s free).
There are so many things out of your control as a CEO. Exemplary speaking isn’t one of them. Fortunately, like most CEOs, you are really intelligent, and you’ll be amazed how quickly your speaking/presentation skills will improve with some new tools in your arsenal.