January 31, 2003
By Larry Conroy
Corporate officers can be difficult to deal with. This proved to be even more the case post-Enron.
A big part of my time as a performance, presentation and media coach, is spent training corporate VIPs and their staffs to speak well and say things to interviewers and the press that makes them look and sound good.
The day CNN broadcast the news about Enron’s collapse, I was having lunch on the top floor executive dining room of one of America’s biggest power supply companies. Suddenly appetites were lost around the tables. People were hurrying out with mobile phones pressed to their ears. Press conferences were being called. The President of the company was sitting across from me and with a sigh of relief told me he wouldn’t have to worry about speaking to the press for a while as he was leaving on a long trip to Argentina the next day.
At first I took this to be a nervous joke until I realized that he was telling the truth. I looked at him in amazement. This was exactly the opposite of what he needed to do. Now more than ever it was pertinent for him to talk to the press. I had taught them how delicate press relations could be, how quickly one small thing could be misconstrued and cause resignation letters to fly all over the place. Now one of their chief competitors had been labeled a den of thieves.
How would it look to the press if the president of this company was leaving for weeks? We’d hear all kinds of horror stories. I told him it was impossible. The trip was canceled.
The next morning the president appeared on several television news programs to tell the press and the public that he had decided to cancel his trip so he could speak to this very troubling issue and attest to the fact that not all power companies were like Enron.
Sadly that particular company, along with many more, have dropped a lot of their training programs due to budget crunches. Too bad. That news conference may have saved them from a much worse fate. Training programs should not be looked on as luxuries in lean times. Rather, they should be stepped up as competition gets tighter. Those industries with the best training programs for sales, management, and corporate staff will be the companies which recover, survive and grow.
One of my most rewarding experiences was helping a stroke-striken CEO deliver a beautiful speech. A Fortune 500 sports shoes and clothes company brought him to me and literally sat him down as if he were a brain dead patient. They talked to me about him as if he wasn’t there. He’d committed the corporate sin of getting sick. I was asked to get him to speak for two minutes at an upcoming company convention. They assured me that they would be very grateful.
His 25th anniversary with the company was coming up in two months and he was to address 5000 of the top managers who were going to come from all over the world. No one could know of his illness or the company’s stock would plummet. After the meeting he would retire quietly and fade into the sunset.
I asked him how he felt about it all. He said he’d be very grateful. He’d been looking forward to this convention for a long time, and that if he couldn’t do it, I might as well take him out behind the barn and shoot him.
He spoke well. After being treated like a child by his vice presidents, he proved to have a sharp mind and considerable wit. The problem was the stroke had destroyed critical parts of his short term memory, those parts of his brain which controlled reading. Words on papers looked like ‘worms’ to him and, as he put it: “Show me how to get to the bathroom, and I’ll have forgotten by the time I get to the end of this couch.”
We started to work. I had two ear prompters built for him– one for each ear — rigged him with a small receiver, and started to teach him how to be an expert in ear prompter skills. His speech was handed to me. It was dry and convoluted — junk, to be polite. I threw it out and with his relieved script writer (who lamented that “they made me do it” ) rewrote the whole thing. Many hours of work later, the CEO was ready. We left for Florida.
The CEO was scheduled for three speeches, each before thousands of attendees and broadcast via satellite to branches around the world. When it was time for him to speak, the control room was emptied, except for a select few. No one was to know of the stroke, and it would have been obvious once they saw my ventriloquist act.
The CEO went out with a huge stack of papers — all blank except for a happy face I’d drawn on the top sheet. The crowd was restless. They’d just seen a great Broadway type show and had eaten a fabulous dinner. Huey Lewis and the News waited for them to finish desert so the dancing could start. They had also been given bonus checks as the best managers of the organization. They were restless, but ready to be told they’d done a great job, and that’s what I’d planned.
As he stepped out on the stage the audience saw the huge stack of notes and expected the worst. I spoke to him over the audio link, telling him to smile, look around the room, and just keep smiling. The room quieted. I asked him to nod his head if he was ready . He nodded. “Okay,” I told him, “here we go.” The goal of his first two lines was to make the audience feel good right away.
“Wow, what a time,” was that first line. As he heard my words in his ears, his body language immediately went into action. Before he spoke, his arms went out, hands palms up, a grin appeared on his face, then he repeated the phrase. For them it was a great time, and they reacted. A standing ovation after only one line. When they were quieted, we were ready to go again.
“If any of you managers think you shouldn’t be in this room tonight . . . . Well, you’re wrong.” Again as he heard my words his body language went into action before he spoke, He grinned, his right arm jutting out in a room sweeping gesture. “If any of you managers think you shouldn’t be in this room tonight . . . ” He paused, and gave a big hey-like shrug. “Well, you’re wrong.” He’d just hit them with two big booster shots.
That week he went on to make three eleven minute speeches without a flaw. “The best speeches he’s ever made”, was what one of his VPs wrote. Too bad those were to be his last speeches.
The main point of this story is the importance of body language going into action when the thought comes into the head, before one speaks, just like it happens in real life. If you don’t believe this, just watch how people speak to you, and what you do as you listen and answer.
Oxford University, after very exacting tests, stated that body language accounts for 67% of all conversation. Words themselves only account for 7%. The balance of the 100% is made up of breathing, tonality, and attitude. Far too many producers and directors tell people appearing on camera, not to move too much and not to use their hands. They might as well tell them to do a good job of communicating their message, but not to speak. Body language need not be “big”, but don’t make the speaker so nervous that they’re thinking about not moving instead of focusing on the message. Good speakers do move.
Encourage professional training for all your speakers. After all, without proper training and preparation, look what happened to the Titanic.
Larry Conroy is a performance, presentation and media coach. He has been coaching actors, directors, CEO’s, attorneys, news casters, TV personalities and show hosts, for the past twenty years. He works with clients at his studio in New York, on the set, or in their workplace. He can be reached at (212) 741-1444 or at email@example.com