When Catherine Aczel Boivie delivered a presentation to VanCity Credit Union’s board of directors on the need to replace the bank’s more than 20-year old core banking system, she used a single PowerPoint slide to illustrate her point. The slide contained a picture of a sleek sports car from the 1970s. She told her audience that the car represented VanCity’s antiquated software: It looked gorgeous, but it was made to run on leaded gas, and it didn’t include any of the conveniences of today’s automobiles. Her ability to understand the audience and communicate in their language secured the investment she needed for the new system.
“I realize when I give a speech that’s when I need to demonstrate I’m a business leader, not a technology leader,” says Aczel Boivie, senior vice-president of information technology and CEO of Inventure Solutions, a IT subsidiary of VanCity Credit Union. “I don’t talk about technology for technology’s sake, but rather how it enables the business.”
No doubt Aczel Boivie’s approach would have earned a thumbs-up from Marianne Gobeil, CEO of Leading Communicators, a Toronto-based communications advisory firm. Gobeil says the hallmark of an effective presentation is the speaker’s appreciation of why they’re presenting and what they want to achieve.
“The analogy is getting in your car and driving without a destination in mind,” she says. “You’ll end up somewhere, but is it where you want to be?”
Gobeil makes the distinction between public speaking and leadership communication; the latter, she says, is meant to change the way people – specifically the leader’s followers – think and act.
“Leaders shape ideas; they invoke followers to take action to realize the leader’s purpose, whether that’s growing the business or expanding the customer base,” she says.
The key is engagement, says Gobeil, which goes far beyond merely transmitting information to an audience.
“People think just because they’re speaking, they’re communicating,” she says. “To communicate it has to resonate with the audience, and that means speaking to their concerns in a way that is meaningful – at that moment in time.”
Because of their highly technical backgrounds, CIOs, in particular, often find it challenging to effectively convey their ideas to stakeholders. The typical IT leader tends to feel more comfortable citing facts and details, but that’s the wrong road to go down, says Gobeil.
“The leading research on decision-making shows people don’t make decisions strictly on fact; they need an element of emotion to make a decision,” she explains. “If someone is fact-oriented, the idea of them speaking in a way that rallies or convinces or persuades will be limited.”
To help leaders in their quests to become better communicators, Gobeil’s company has developed Speakcheck, a research-based diagnostic tool that evaluates 150 distinct components of a speech.
“Using Speakcheck, we’re able to identify what the leader is already great at, what their potential strengths are and the areas they need to strengthen,” she explains, adding that her clients realize at least a 24 per cent increase in the effectiveness of their communications.
Experienced speakers assume they know how to give a great talk, but sometimes there are rudiments that even veteran speakers miss, Gobeil adds. For example, Speakcheck scores the speaker’s credibility, based on both the speech’s content and its delivery.
“Measuring sincerity and trustworthiness is very important,” says Gobeil. “If the leader doesn’t sound sincere, the audience isn’t going to listen.”
Another area Speakcheck analyzes is audience “fog,” a phenomenon that sets in when a speaker uses too much jargon or too many acronyms.
“Even when presenting to a technical group, the leader’s understanding is often much higher than the audience’s,” and if there’s too much complexity in the presentation, the audience will zone out.
“If you don’t reach them, you create uncertainty and confusion. Where there is uncertainty and confusion, people don’t act.”
When leaders become more effective communicators, it distinguishes both them and their organizations, says Gobeil, noting that her clients’ success is proof that an investment in this area provides a solid return.
“For two years, a client was trying to achieve financial results in her organization,” she explains. “In a matter of a month, just by changing the way she communicated to her stakeholders, she was able to achieve this goal.”
Great orators, such as Barack Obama or Steve Jobs, seem to come by their talents naturally, but Gobeil says there’s usually a lot of hard work that goes on behind the scenes to achieve such a polished result. She offers a tip sheet to leaders looking to leverage the opportunity in every speaking engagement, formal or informal:
• Make the speech a priority. Too many people start working on their presentations the night before, and the result is a lost opportunity, says Gobeil.
• Know your audience, and reach listeners at a level of complexity they understand. Always tie your key points back to the audience, and why they’re relevant for them.
• Open powerfully. In the first three minutes of a speech, an audience will decide if a speech is interesting. If it’s not, they disengage.