How to Prevent Those Embarrassing Moments in Speeches That You Can’t Take Back

Just as we all listen closely to the Fed Chairman’s updates both for what is obvious and what isn’t, audiences ranging from analysts and shareholders to employees and community leaders hang on to the words of CEOs, watching for hints about a company’s direction and its implications.

“All constituents hang on to the words of CEOs, watching for hints about a company’s direction and its implications.”

Boeing CEO James McNerney, the latest to misfire, likely became overly comfortable with his audience of Wall Street analysts when he responded to a question concerning his plans for retirement with, “The heart will still be beating, the employees will still be cowering (laughing). I’ll be working hard; there’s no end in sight.”

Flubs like this, and similar ones from Guido Barilla of the Barilla pasta brand and Dennis “Chip” Wilson, founder of Lululemon, show how common it is for senior leaders to forget their mission: To inspire confidence and excitement about their brand, vision and strategy.

Here are four communication tips to help CEOs build reputational and credibility equity:

1.  Be very clear about why you are communicating. What specifically do you want your audience to know or do? And to draw on the ubiquitous WIFM (what’s in it for me) rule, why should they care?

2.  Take a few moments before any formal communication encounter to frame the three to five messages you want to convey – specifically and succinctly. Always tie back to one or more of these messages if you are led off-track.

“CEOs: Everything you say will likely get back to employees, customers and shareholders.”

3. Know your audience – who they are, what they need from you and their likely perspective. And regardless of the audience you are speaking to, assume that your words will be transported and delivered to the entire universe of interested parties (think social media). Anything and everything you say will likely be heard in some form or format by employees, customers and shareholders; these are the three legs that underpin every communication message you convey. “They” may not be in the room; but “they” will hear you.

4. Finally, when speaking formally or informally about your business, be yourself. Allow your audience to connect with the aspects of your energy, vision and personality that make you a leader and inspires their confidence.

Projecting confidence and engaging people at an emotional level (the single most important key to motivating them to take action) is, at the most fundamental level, about connecting. It means bringing an authentic (unjaded) curiosity about what people know, understand and concerns them, and a sincere desire to marry that up with where you want to take them. “You have to look at leadership through the eyes of the followers and you have to live the message,” says The Body Shop founder Anita Roddick. This is true whether you are conducting an all-hands meeting with employees, playing golf with customers at the country club or bantering with analysts.

Tracy Benson: Tracy Benson is founder and CEO of On the Same Page ( a New York-based consulting firm that specializes in developing and applying communication solutions to support companies' business plans. They work with clients across an array of business sectors from smaller firms to Fortune 500s.
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