Keep Your Audience Engaged or Lose Them
by Ty and Pat Boyd

When Thom McKinney booked speakers for a national cable TV conference, he knew he could count on a great turn-out for one presenter -- Ted Turner. The former CEO of Turner Broadcasting would take the stage and "you'd have no idea what would come out of his mouth," McKinney recalls. "If we put Ted on at 7:30 am, 3,000 people would turn out in New York City to hear him. They knew Ted would give them more than the party line."

Maybe Turner's unpredictability isn't your style. But if you're a CEO, chairman, or other high-level executive, you're facing more pressure than ever to deliver rousing - and believable - speeches and presentations.

Years ago, CEOs might have gotten away with being imperial figures, unemotional on the podium. But after Enron and other corporate scandals, employees, customers, shareholders and stock analysts are all demanding more from corporate leaders.

The stakes are high. Fifty percent of a company’s reputation is attributable to the CEO’s reputation, according to a 2003 Burson-Marsteller study. A key way to demonstrate who you are, and what your company values, is through presentations. Your presentations reflect upon everyone in your business, whether your company is public or private.

CEOs are called upon to speak more frequently than they once were, often to larger and more diverse audiences. Your presentation may be to your employees. But it will be only hours until word gets to Wall Street. People listen intently to what CEOs and other top officials say. Where there's big news, every paragraph might be parsed for hidden meanings. It's all the more important to be clear about what you are communicating.

As presentation-skill trainers to Fortune 500 companies for more than 20 years, we've seen CEOs and other senior executives make common mistakes:

  • They think they have to project machismo and end up sounding like CEO caricatures who no one trusts.

  • They limit themselves to facts, data, and PowerPoint presentations when storytelling would better serve their needs. Or they devote their entire presentation to anecdotes without analysis to back it up.

  • They reached the top of their professions by being creative and taking risks - but then stop taking any risks in their presentations.

  • Or they never learned speaking skills in their previous job, but now they're expected to be polished speakers.

Audiences have changed, too. People have become very passive. Even if you've got the cure for cancer, you have to deliver your message well or people won't care. You have a choice: keep the audience engaged, or lose them.

Use these techniques, gleaned from our own experiences and those of other CEOs, to keep the audience with you every time.

Be authentic. Don't put on a phony CEO facade. Show your real passion for your business, your genuine appreciation for your employees, your true excitement for where the company is headed. Be real. “I used to get on stage and become a little stiff or ‘teacherly,’” says Thom McKinney, now a professional speaker and leadership consultant. “Eventually, I realized people had to see the same person in me on stage and off.”

Give it all your energy. "Energy and tone are incredibly important. They make a lasting impression," says Peyton Howell, president of Lash Group Healthcare Consultants. "Even if you have to deliver challenging news about how business is going, if it's delivered with energy, people feel hope." A strong voice, eye contact, and powerful gestures all demonstrate energy and passion.

Distinguish confidence from arrogance. Just because you're a leader doesn't mean you're without internal questions or worries. Most of us try to hide those nerves with machismo. But real confidence comes when we: 1. Have solid preparation and content in our speeches. 2. Remember good experiences in the past and build on those. 3. Realize audience members don't see our nerves. The best piece of advice we can offer about this subject: It’s not about you. It’s about your audience.

Practice. When Bill Schultz, president of the European Consumer Products business for Georgia Pacific, gave a presentation to his board, he created a one-page prompt sheet for himself but hoped to use it as little as possible. Ideally, he would not use a podium or even a mike. To achieve that, Schultz handwrites his notes, then types them, then practices numerous times. The process helps him remember exactly what he wants to say, and be far more personal and effective than reading a speech.

Know your audience. Your audience is wondering, "What's in this presentation for me?" By understanding who's in your audience and what they need to know, you are much more likely to engage their interest.

Use your internal coach. "Ask yourself, 'Are these folks receiving my message as I intended?'” says Randy Hall, global director of learning and development for Pfizer Animal Health. "If you approach it from that point of view, it makes all the difference." The audience might like you, but it's more important that they understand what you say or take something from your talk that they can use tomorrow.

Use an external coach, too. If possible, find a colleague in a non-competing industry who can be your coach. Look for someone you can rehearse with and have honest, helpful exchanges, without assuming that CEO veneer.

Reach out. "Don't put a barrier between you and the group," advises Pat Rodgers, CEO of Rodgers Builders. Step out from behind the podium whenever you can, or don't use one at all. Smile and use your eyes to connect with others.

Be honest about bad news. If you’re announcing something very serious, such as an accident or death, don’t pretend that it’s not bad news. Be as factual as you can. Always make eye contact. Be compassionate.

End with vigor. Many times, CEOs and senior-level managers end with a question and answer session. That’s not a strong ending, because you can’t control the flow of questions. A masterful presentation can end with a whimper, even off-topic, because of Q&A. Try Bill Schultz’s remedy: Do the Q&A if required, then conclude with formal remarks that bring your presentation back to your critical themes.

Get trained. Even natural speakers can benefit from training, particularly training that includes videotaping. The taping often reveals “you look and sound much different than you actually think,” says Ray Evernham, CEO of Evernham MotorSports. “What you sound like to yourself and how you come across to someone else is totally different.” You might realize you need to make wardrobe updates, or be more aware of your posture, or make more vigorous gestures.

The most important advice we can offer is this: The stakes are high, but you don’t have to be perfect. Being perfect is an irrational objective. It will paralyze you and make you fail every time. So strive to be better than your last presentation. Be your best.

Ty Boyd and Pat Boyd help executives hone their natural communication tools through Ty Boyd Executive Learning Systems and The Excellence in Speaking Institute. Their books include The Million Dollar Toolbox: A Blueprint for Transforming Your Life & Your Career with Powerful Communication Skills. Reach them 800- 336-2693, or visit

Many more articles in Presentations & Public Speaking in The CEO Refresher Archives


Copyright 2005 by Ty Boyd and Pat Boyd. All rights reserved.

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