How to Speak Like a CEO, by Suzanne Bates

Review of How to Speak Like a CEO, by Suzanne Bates

This is a good overview of leadership communication skills.  It emphasizes authenticity, and it covers a broad range of communication topics such as speech / presentation preparation, question and answer sessions, leading meetings, working with the media, and having 1-1 conversations.  It doesn’t go into a great deal of depth in each arena, but it does provide many practical tips and suggestions.  It also has a positive, encouraging “coach” tone throughout, and one of the main themes is to encourage the reader to decide to embark on an improvement plan.  The book is based on the author’s experience, anecdotes from her professional life, and in one section, results of a ~300 person survey her firm conducted.

I would recommend this book as an introduction to executive communication.

Here are a few key ideas from the book:

  • “All CEOs who speak well were once average and many were terrible.  Many people would like to be better speakers, but they don’t make the decision to do what it takes.”
  • Walk on stage as if you belong there
  • Be honest / upfront about bad news, and use it as an opportunity to shape perception
  • Don’t talk too much
  • Frequent mistakes people make in front of crowds and cameras: 
    • Winging it for important presentations or media interviews
    • Leaving it all to speechwriters
    • Not answering the question.  You need to take tough questions head-on.  Answer candidly, directly, even if it’s not what people want to hear
    • Forgetting the audience
  • “Be sincere, be brief, be seated” – Franklin D Roosevelt
  • “What do you really believe in or feel passionate about?  It doesn’t hurt, once a year, to take time to write down the things that really matter to you.  Your beliefs are your core, and when you allow others to see those inner beliefs, you win friends and build trust.  Sharing your beliefs is one of the most authentic things you can do.”
  • Talk about your values
  • Be candid, speak your mind.  “You have to speak your mind.  You have to convey your opinion without pretty language and qualifiers.  Authenticity is about truth.”
  • Be consistent.  “Al Gore suffered from the inconsistency issue, too.  Voters couldn’t figure out who he really was.”
  • Share.  “You need to share a little bit about you, beyond who you are on the job.”
  • “It’s important to get in touch with yourself.  This isn’t about being authentic.  It’s about having a healthy personal life.  Family and friends, interests, travel, entertainment, hobbies, and sports are all important.  When you’re living a life, you are not only a better person but also a person to whom others relate and someone they want to know.”
  • A story is one of the best ways to begin a speech.  Must be relevant to the theme
  • Good stories contain conflict, and a few well-placed details.  Don’t go overboard with detail, just enough to make it real.
  • Once you have a good story, keep it.  You can use it again and again.
  • Use analogies to help people better understand
  • “Analogies are economical devices for instantly capturing a concept.”
  • Q & A, 4 rules:  Be calm, be honest, be available, be open-minded
  • Control your emotion, be calm is #1
  • Honesty “You say what you know within the bounds of what is legal, ethical, and appropriate.”  People want the unvarnished truth.
  • “Mistakes people forgive.  Lies they cannot tolerate.  Leaders cannot afford to speak anything but the truth.  There is too much at stake.”
  • “Telling the truth doesn’t mean tell all.  You must be judicious.” 
  • “I believe that writing down the questions is even more valuable than preparing talking points for an interview.”
  • It never hurts to craft a good quote or two.  “A pithy, interesting observation will help you get quoted and maximize the value of the interview.”
  • Convey 2-3 clear, concise, interesting messages
  • Practice out loud
  • Flag messages:  “The most important thing to remember is…”  “The most valuable lesson here is…”
  • Don’t avoid the question, answer it.  Then, bridge to a key point you want to make.
  • “What we’re happy to report…”  “What’s important to remember…”.  Reporters appreciate this because it reduces some of the work of interviewing.
  • Assume the mic is on at all times (ie, be careful what you say)
  • Handling a media crisis:  be responsive, honest, and concerned.  Be the first to tell the story so you can control it.
  • More tips:  anticipate issues, get out front, act; don’t react, be visible, tell the truth, fully inform spokespersons, talk directly to stakeholders, express empathy and concern (2nd most important rule next to honesty), take responsibility (a secret to defusing a crisis), don’t delay.
  • Wait 15 mins to call a reporter back so you have time to draft talking points.  Or if you have more time, practice with videotape.