The Big Speech Dilemma

As this week's UN General Assembly speeches show, the podium is a great but scary place for leaders.

It might be to unveil the latest tech gadget. Or it could be to address an audience of shareholders. And, in a shining example this week as the United Nations reconvenes in New York, it might be to speak to the world.

The public speech retains its place as a time-honored tool for grabbing attention and conveying the leader’s message. Even in this age of instant communication, be it via Twitter or mass-emailed press releases, experts say that surprisingly nothing still compares with the spotlight that a live audience can bring. But done incorrectly, of course, that same spotlight can reveal a leader’s lack of authenticity.

“If you want to be very effective and rally the troops and world opinion behind you, then you have to be very savvy at the podium,” observes Bernard Zen-Ruffinen, Korn Ferry’s president of EMEA.

Some CEOs and other leaders are natural speakers, armed with great oratory skills. Those who aren’t typically prefer the behind-the-scenes communiqués of carefully scripted announcements with crafted and vetted quotations. Sticking to that same script when it’s time to give a speech is one way that leaders play it safe. But leadership pros say few audiences are inspired by speakers who read from a teleprompter.

“You have to play the emotional chord,” says Zen-Ruffinen. “A leader who does that well will be seen as an authentic leader.”

In less-than-competent hands, amplified emotion can be like playing with fire. It’s one thing for an icon like Steve Jobs to fuel the fervor of his brand’s devotees, or for President Donald Trump, as he did this week, to use rhetorical devices to appeal to his constituent base. But even then, there are risks of how a broader and more diverse audience will react, especially with YouTube preserving and replaying it for posterity.

Experts advise that leaders, whatever their personality and communication style, should give the impression that they are in command and in control. The secret? Being extremely aware and agile to respond in the moment to the audience. At times, that may mean turning up the emotional volume to spark interest and rally supporters. But at other times, that means toning things down. When activist investors have the floor at the annual shareholder meeting, for example, the last thing the leader wants to do is fan the flames with an emotional response. It would be far better to find an astute way to provide calm and perspective. In heated moments, humor can be an excellent device to defuse tension and refocus attention.

“Business leaders need to capture the audience—not rapture them,” Zen-Ruffinen says. “Rapturing them with too much emotion means you don’t know where it’s going.”