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Corporate Leader, Polished Speaker

We truly “make or break” ourselves by what we say, and more importantly, how we say it.

For example, a young salesman rose to speak at a regional meeting of the Conoco Oil Company some years ago and did so with confidence, clarity and vigor. I happened to be seated next to the company vice president who leaned over to his CEO and whispered, “Who is that guy? He ought to be in management.

The young man created a favorable impression by how he communicated at the meeting. Perhaps without knowing it, he used this speaking assignment to supercharge his career.

As a senior executive, you probably face dozens of speaking engagements each year. Whether it be giving a brief toast at the employee Christmas party, reporting on finances at the annual shareholders meeting or directing a board meeting, addressing a group is a chance to win others to your cause, foster loyalty and enhance the company image, as well as your own.

Ten Common Mistakes Speaking engagements are powerful tools — ones that can be abused or misused. Here are some of the most common speaking mistakes made by executives and how you can avoid them:

Low energy level: Having an important title doesn’t give you license to be dull and dry. People may have to listen to you, but they should want to, as well. Avoid rigidity and stiffness; use your natural energy and enthusiasm by gesturing, moving about the room, changing the tone and volume of your voice.

Gerry Kenny, president of Chicago-based Kenny Construction, transformed what could have been a mundane slideshow into a stimulating stage show. Droning descriptions of slides in a darkened room lulled audiences to sleep. Realizing this, he began putting extra energy into his vocal tone and pace. To provide an element of surprise, he moved about during his presentation. He not only kept his audience awake but entertained, as they anticipated his every move.

Rote memorization: Even experienced speakers get occasional butterflies in the stomach. But to counter this natural sense of panic by memorizing your entire speech almost guarantees disaster. You will sound and look mechanical, detached and uninvolved. You should know the main points by heart, and yet be spontaneous.

Dean Rasmussen, president of a general contracting firm, wanted to build a heliport in his backyard for personal use. Knowing his neighbors would object, he invited them to his home for a meeting. He also invited media and presented them with press kits. He used clear visuals to explain his position. And he offered to contribute a $1,500 water tank for use in an emergency. Although he rehearsed his presentation, he didn’t memorize it. He spoke straight from the heart about how he would cooperate with his neighbors to make the heliport a service to the whole community.

Think how you feel about an issue you’re going to address and internalize those thoughts. Prepare a set outline, which should be memorized, and then ad lib the rest. You’ll sound sincere, persuasive and far more exciting.

Winging it: The flip side to rote memorization is speaking off the top of your head. Though your ultimate goal is to appear natural and relaxed, there is no excuse for being unprepared. You’ll end up rambling, stumbling and forgetting important points. You should have a well-thought-out beginning and ending, and a solid structure for your talk.

Many CEO’s have told me: “I’ve given this talk a million times. I don’t need to rehearse.” Sure, they’ve given it a million times — exactly the same way, regardless of their audience. More than likely it has become stale and boring. An audience can always tell when a speech has not been personalized for them; they resent it and often tune you out. There’s no quicker way to alienate an audience than to ignore their sensitivities, attitudes, and even jargon.

Missed opportunities: Every time you speak, either publicly or in-house, you have a chance to inspire people. Seize the moment and promote corporate philosophy and mission, or reaffirm faith in their ability to lead.

Lee Iaccoca is one CEO who uses every speaking occasion to enhance corporate philosophy as well as his personal image. He knows how to stir people with his enthusiasm and vision. As a spokesperson, your favorable image builds trust and credibility that reflects on the company. Never underestimate the power of your personal charisma to further corporate reputation and increase the visibility of your company Close with something memorable — a tag line, motto or sharp idea — that people will remember.

Misusing power: A few CEOs abuse their privileged positions by making the audience a target of intimidation and criticism.

Rudy Hirsch, a past president of Marshall Field & Co., Chicago, was renown as an enthusiastic, articulate but opinionated speaker. During one company meeting, he singled out an employee by criticizing the man’s appearance and sales performance. The result was a humiliated employee and a shocked, offended audience that probably remembered nothing else.

Using individuals as examples can be effective if done to compliment or build people — not destroy them. Negativity should be avoided and constructive criticism directed to the whole group rather than individuals.

Information overload: You need to charm your audience to win them over, not spew forth information like a verbal annual report. People crave personal touch from their leaders and are much quicker to ally themselves to someone with whom they can relate. Be endearing; their respect for you on a personal, human level will carry over into their loyalty to you as company leader.

A popular CEO of a Napa Valley winery was once a stiff, formal speaker. After some coaching, he began to let his personality show through his speech; he occasionally shared stories about the early days of the family winery. His audiences loved these glimpses into his past, memories of his humble beginnings — and they could more naturally relate to him.

Rehearsing up to show time: Once you’ve arrived, its too late for rehearsals. In fact, its counterproductive— you either know your opening and basic outline or you don’t. Racing through it will only make you more nervous. Instead, join in on a conversation, introduce yourself and meet a few people. When you’re in front of the microphone, you’ll feel as if you have a few friends in the audience, making your opening much smoother.

Lack of tactical strategy: Visualizing physical surroundings and assessing how the audience will perceive you are essential. To achieve greatness, you have to make positives out of your personal negatives, and everyone has some.

For example, a petite woman attorney’s a soft voice was often drowned out by her tall, outspoken male colleagues. Eventually, she developed a way to be better heard and seen. During meetings, she would find a graceful excuse to stand up — retrieving a chart, distributing a hand-out — so that, physically, she stood above eye level. She also learned to project her voice, helping her change perceptions and retain the attention of her audience.

Another executive once lobbied a senate subcommittee to receive funding for the Clean Water Bill. Arriving early, he noticed that most senators were virtually ignoring the person at the podium. When his turn came, he began by almost doubling his request — asking for $4.2 billion. It was the perfect opening.

Every senator sat up straight in his chair. “That must be a typo,” said the panel chairman, “You’re asking for $2.4 billion, not 4.2 billion, aren’t you?

No” he replied with confidence. “We want the full $4.2 billion you promised us four years ago.” While he had their attention, he hit them with several of his strongest arguments. That triggered lO minutes of questioning from the committee members. When he finished, several of the senators followed him out into the hallway to ask further questions.

With a clever strategy, he turned a negative situation into a positive one. Though he didn’t get the $4.2 billion, he did get every dollar of the $2.4 billion in his written request.

Refusing professional help: Coaching on how to field questions from the media, how to speak before the camera and other skills is crucial for anyone meeting the press frequently. Such training, however, is often shrugged off as an extravagance until a CEO mishandles a situation with an aggressive reporter, misspeaks or rambles at a press conference. CEOs should be coached on how to avoid these situations before they happen.

Becoming a public spokesperson without preparation can be an endeavor a much more expensive — in terms of embarrassment, loss of credibility and future revenue — than investing in an executive trainer. Aside from speaking confidently and coherently, you should know how to defuse sticky situations and turn them around in your favor when possible.

Letting fear paralyze you: Although some leaders hide it well, they may be agonized each time they’re called upon to “say a few words.” Even John F. Kennedy, immortalized as a polished public speaker, had a few traumatic moments when addressing large groups. At the 196O Democratic Convention, Kennedy was so nervous before giving his acceptance speech that he chewed his fingernails down past the quick. Throughout his entire speech, he held one bleeding hand behind his back.

Five Corrections: Fear of public speaking is a natural, powerful emotion. But the panic spurts can be overcome. Here are some tips:

Control your breathing: When you’re nervous or anxious you tend to breathe up high in your chest. When you’re calm and controlled it comes from the diaphragm. Learn to slow down and actually think about your breathing; consciously move it out of the top of your chest and into your diaphragm.

Use positive self-talk: By repeating upbeat, positive messages in your mind, like “I’m ready…I feel good about this… I’m confident,” you will eventually start to believe it. Even if you don’t buy it consciously, your subconscious buys it — and the speech will be more likely to go in that direction.

Drink warm water: Have some room- temperature water on hand if you’re going to be speaking for any length of time. Never use ice water, as it can constrict your pipes and make you sound even more nervous and squeaky.

Tense everything and then let go: Tighten all your muscles at once, even in your face. Hold it a few seconds — and then let everything go. The feeling of relaxation is euphoric. This exercise can be performed very discreetly, backstage or in the wings, before you’re introduced.

Internalize your opening: Know exactly what you’re going to say so you start off with a bang. Most people decide within the first few seconds how long they’re going to listen to you. If you grab their attention and sense positive feedback immediately, it will give you a much-needed boost. Often people say their nervousness subsides “once I get going.” If the first few seconds are typically your hardest, plan ahead and make them your easiest.

As the old adage goes, “It’s not what you say, but how you say it.” Studies show that 55 percent of your message is conveyed visually (how you look, dress and move); 38 percent is your vocal delivery; only 7 percent is content. Substance is important. But learning how to deliver an articulate message with the grace of a performer is key to becoming a powerful, respected CEO who captivates — not captures — an audience.