The Executive Presentation

By Fred Ashman

The keynote at a major sales event in Puerto Rico was to be delivered by the chairman of the board. He would deliver the same speech in a second event for corporate and regional sales-people in New York a month later. Due to a schedule conflict the chairman chose to send his speech on video to Puerto Rico. As producer of the event for many years, we were involved in every phase from concept and creative development, including writing and producing all videos, except for executive speech writing. The exception was when we were asked for help with speeches, which occurred occasionally as we gained the trust of top execs over years. This would be the first video in a major event which we did not create. The speech was written and shot by a NY PR film. It was 20 minutes of talking head, no graphics of other visuals, was full of mostly old information, and frankly a lot of BS. My boss, the executive in charge of the major events, was as shocked as I was at the weak content of the speech, but it was too late. The video was delivered the day before the event.

The audience of 2,000 in Puerto Rico watched quietly for the first couple minutes, then the din of conversations started. Many began to tune out much of what was being said. Those who were watching started to laugh out loud at serious parts of the speech not a good sign. All these reactions would never have happened if the chairman was on stage, but he wasn’t, so the audience openly talked over response much of the speech. It was a very awkward 20 minutes.

The speech itself was bereft of new information, filled with cliches and at the end the chairman had been prompted by the PR team to make a V with fingers on each hand for victory, then bring them together to form a W “for winning,” all meet with open laughter. Meant to be serious and meaningful, the entire speech was a failure, even though there were a few good points in it. The senior executive on scene told me he and the other VP promised to let the chairman know the response and rewrite of the speech before the New York event.

Fast forward, day before the New York event. The chairman rehearses the exact same speech, on prompter, with the PR people coaching and telling him what a great speech it was. Shocked at the same awful speech, I huddled with the exec, our boss, to figure out how to tell the chairman about the response in Puerto Rico. The solution from my boss, I would immediately speak privately to the chairman about the reaction in Puerto Rico, and if he was willing, suggest changes. Why me? I was the outside consultant, with many successful events with the chairman in the past. Of course, if it didn’t go well, it was clear who was expendable. A trusted outside consultant can say things a subordinate may not be able to say without repercussions. This happened many times in my career, always with risk to my future as their producer. Speaking gently but candidly, telling the story of Puerto Rico shocked and alarmed him. Angry that he had not been told the truth, he looked at me earnestly and said, what can we do? He asked for suggestions. On the spot, with the prompter operator, we marked up the script, re-wrote sections, cut the cliches and cut substantial copy that was irrelevant or old news. As we were finishing, he told me about a pending major positive announcement, one which not even all his senior executives knew had been approved by the board. “That’s a great story to wrap up with if you can release it now,” I suggested. He thought for a moment, then nodded.

The new announcement was a very positive surprise to the audience and executives. That was the big announcement, which got enthusiastic applause. For the closing line of the speech, I suggested the chairman make a personal commitment to continue to keep finding ways to make their jobs easier and them and the company, more successful. The next morning, he took the stage, and delivered the speech. We had inserted a couple self-deprecating funny lines which got the intended laugh. More importantly there were no unintended laughs, plus enthusiastic applause on several points, ending with a standing ovation with genuine enthusiasm and cheering at the end. Thrilled with the outcome, he thanked the my boss, and me for telling him the truth. What really changed?

After the dumb cliches and irrelevant words were cut, new information that mattered to his people was inserted. When I asked the chairman what was new or would have the most impact on his people he immediately responded with several great answers. So we added a couple paragraphs. The big story at the end was a bonus.

The result, Standing Ovation.

Even if you are not the most polished speaker, he wasn’t, but are a good executive, he was, when you switch to the perspective of what’s important to the audience, you have a much better chance of effectively communicating the overall message. Be careful when you speak truth to power. It must be done just like the way porcupines make love… very carefully. To have impact on any audience internal or external there are seven critical things to consider.

    1. Who is the Audience you are reaching out to?
    1. What Message do you want to convey vs the message the Audience is most interested in hearing?
    1. Change Perspective, craft the message for the audience, not for you or to impress your boss. Many execs spend too much time running through their own report card for the last quarter.
    1. Include new, relevant and important, TRUE information, no BS.
    1. Answer the questions you know they care about most; especially things which impact their life, professional and personal.
    1. Use video & visuals to enhance the emotional impact
    1. Less is More.
  1. Remember KISS has 2 versions:

Keep It Simple, & Keep It Short, Stupid!

Remember, a good story, about things your audiences cares about, enhanced with good video, sounds, music and minimal words, is a very powerful and effective way to bolster any presentation, and reach your audience emotionally as well as intellectually.

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