No matter the company, the people at the top are different-sort of. Their skills, knowledge, and talents have put them in positions to lead and inspire, but that doesn’t mean they can or will. And although senior managers usually get a hefty salary, a nice office, and a competent staff, they aren’t immune to the most common challenges of presenting: anxiety, lack of preparation time, nervous tics, off-message rambling, and misreading an audience.
In fact, many top executives tread these familiar waters-and rougher presentation seas-precisely because they are captain of the ship. With the responsibility of leadership come inflated expectations, even more pressure to perform well, and serious consequences if they misspeak, look bad, or represent the company poorly in public.
Look at it from a CEO’s perspective. How would you feel if every word you spoke was scrutinized by hundreds of people, became the subject of endless speculation? Or, if one poorly-phrased statement could wreak havoc on employee morale?
Like all presenters, top executives have a range of presentation skills, from excellent to terrible. But unlike a botched presentation from an average presenter, one from a senior executive can have long-term consequences that last months, even years. Million-dollar business deals, tough business challenges, and professional reputations have all been won or lost solely on a senior executive’s presentation skills.
Most top executives recognize that this sort of pressure comes with the big office and the personal parking space. However, those who coach executives say, many people who aspire to the upper echelons of business underestimate the importance continuing presentation-skills development has on their ability to lead, their effectiveness in the trenches and the arc of their career-indeed, their legacy.
“If business communication has always been important, then it’s even more so today, ” says Peter Giuliano, founder and chairman of the Executive Communications Group. “Good business communication cannot be done whimsically or with any level of carelessness, ” says Giuliano, partly because one of the downsides to today’s media-saturated world is that almost every word and gesture does have the potential to magnify itself. “Some executives still live under a delusion that what they say to an intimate group will remain private, but with the way communication has changed, this is no longer the case, ” he says. These days, an off-the-cuff comment or seemingly insignificant aside can travel from the intranet to the Internet and eventually to shareholders or the media, all in a matter of minutes.
Overcoming hindrances. Still, many top executives slog through their day-to-day duties without paying much attention to their presentation skills, and in the process, sometimes set themselves up for failure or disappointment. Those who work in the cottage industry of executive coaching say that one of most insidious obstacles to presentation improvement at this level is a lack of self-awareness borne of the very success that brought an executive to the top.
According to Merna Skinner, a partner and consultant at Exec/Comm, “Many executives say, ‘I know my business and I know my content, just put some words in front of me and I’ll be fine.’ In reality, it’s rare to meet an individual who can do presentations cold and still deliver. “
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