Tuesday, June 04, 2013

8 questions for the CEO who wants to be a great public spokesperson

In my work as a Washington, DC-based speaker coach and media trainer, I work with lots of leaders and CEOs, not only to help them deliver messages effectively but to think them through before they march out in public. That's the core of what don't get caught means: If you're prepared, knowledgeable, trained and ready, you won't get caught by surprise, a clever interviewer or an irate audience member. People get caught when they're communicating every day--mainly because they haven't taken the time to come up with a plan and prepare for what they're going to say and how they're going to interact with an audience, whether that audience is live and in front of them or scattered and on social networks. And that goes double when you're the CEO.

Over time, I've come to see CEO training differently than I did a decade ago, based on the real-life CEOs with whom I work. When I'm planning to train your CEO, I have 7 key questions in mind--questions your CEO should be asking herself, and be able to answer. Those questions are the prep work I give to CEOs before we meet in a training, and they frame the discussion and learning. But any CEO can use these questions to become a better public spokesperson. Try them out on your leader:

  1. What's my message? Smart communicators won't be at all surprised to hear that I encounter many CEOs and board presidents who have no idea what their message should be--or CEOs who confuse their internal message or "inside voice" with what they should say externally. Knowing what's in your message and how to get the most out of it is a basic but critical first step for an out-front leader.
  2. What's not in my message? Knowing what's not in your message--and along with that, knowing why those things are not to be emphasized--is equally important. It can keep the CEO from getting off track in media interviews, or stay focused in speeches and Q&A.
  3. Can I respond, rather than react, to public questions and criticism? The CEO who can respond to public and media questions and criticisms can reduce anxiety, calm critics and look like a leader. The CEO who reacts looks defensive, unprepared and anxious. Which would you like to be?
  4. What's a unique role for my voice, and how can I occupy it? CEOs do best when they break out of the usual jargon and boilerplate and come up with a unique voice, one that reflects a particular role they want to play. Your CEO may be an agitator, a visionary, a peacemaker, a negotiator. When faced with a difficult issue, does she hunker down or get out in front of the issue, leadership-style? Do her words reflect that? Do her messages amplify that role? How does that play out in different settings, from speeches to interviews?
  5. Where can I get maximum impact for my words? When you CEO seeks platforms for these messages, do they provide maximum impact? These days, that platform may look as much like a blog as a podium or interview chair.
  6. How can I use my platform to give others a voice? A great leadership role for a public spokesperson at the CEO level is to use her platform to give voice to others. Looking for opportunities to do so will help your CEO take up residence in that public leadership role. 
  7. How can I fail gracefully in public when needed? We don't do enough work on what happens during the inevitable failures (or perceived failures) that our leaders walk us through in public. With CEOs figuring out their messages, I like to work through a variety of worst-case scenarios with an eye to how those messages can help them meet a public crisis. (Hint: The ability to say "We were wrong, we're sorry" is a muscle every CEO should exercise.) Even in a crisis, there are opportunities to remain consistent with your message and look like a leader--but it helps to have worked that out in advance, before stuff hits the fan.
      If your CEO hasn't yet answered these questions--or hasn't reexamined them in a while--let's talk about creating a communications training for her. Email me at info[at]dontgetcaught[dot]biz.

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