Speechifying: Agony Or Ecstasy?

Dec. 21, 2004

Many of you will remember Jack Benny, the incomparable comedian who pretended to be the cheapest rich man in the world. One of his most laugh-provoking efforts was a joke without a punch line: The television skit opens with Benny being accosted by a masked thief armed with a pistol who demands, "Your money or your life?" Jacks body language reflects his indecision, but he remains wordless. A lengthening silence follows. Soon the audience gets the point, and tiny titters evolve into uproarious laughter. When the laughter finally dies down, the thief repeats, "Come on. Your money or your life?" To which Benny replies peevishly, "Hold your horses. Im thinking! Im thinking!" Neither you nor I have Jack Bennys comedic expertise -- or egos that permit us to accept being the butt of our jokes. But, fortunately, we dont have to be Jack Bennys to be successful communicators. We just have to work harder at it. In these days of information clutter, chief executives who dont communicate are as ineffective as chief executives who cant communicate effectively. As job-protection insurance, I suggest you heed the words of Herbert V. Prochnow who, in The Public Speakers Treasure Chest (1964, Harper & Row), reminds us that speaking is easy. We can all speak. Its getting people to listen, hear, understand, and accept what were saying thats difficult. "Every conscientious speaker is acutely and sensitively aware of the serious nature of his responsibilities," Prochnow says. "Therefore, many speakers will spend from a half-hour to as much as one or two hours in preparation for each minute they expect to speak." If Prochnow is correct, a 15-minute speech requires a minimum of seven and a half hours of preparation. He points out that when a speaker addresses an audience of 100 people for 30 minutes, he or she is using up 3,000 minutes of total audience time. Thats the equivalent of 50 hours -- or more than six eight-hour days. To waste six working days of anyones time, particularly those of your constituents, is criminal. Yet that is precisely what occurs when you speak to 100 persons for 30 minutes without complete and thorough preparation. Many of us tend to believe that every word we speak is a pearl of wisdom. But to our audiences our ranting may sound like gravel in a windblown trash can. The biggest turnoff in verbal communication is talking too long. All good speeches have an attention-getting introduction, a body of interesting information, and a conclusion. The closer the conclusion to the introduction, the more your speech will be appreciated -- and, paradoxically, the more information it will deliver. And, today, delivering information is a far more essential executive function than ever before. Harland Cleveland in The Knowledge Executive: Leadership in an Information Society (1985, Truman Talley Books) reminds us: "Until recently, the executive stood, if not on a pedestal, at least on a traffic island -- protected from the bumpers, shielded from the headlights, raised a little above the honking and the hollering. Now the traffic island has been swept away, and the executive weaves and dodges among his or her constituencies, persuading, cajoling, lobbying, budgeting, arbitrating, bargaining, fund raising, trying to keep cool in the management of contradiction." How difficult is your communication problem? Picture yourself a traffic cop at a major metropolitan intersection such as New Yorks Times Square. Hour after hour, from early morning to late night, you stand in the center of this maze. Your job is to keep the traffic moving, even though youre being pestered by an impatient cadre of angry drivers. As officer in charge of this chaos, your mandate is to analyze it and keep things moving by pointing directions, negotiating priorities, allocating scarcities, settling arguments, and calming tempers. Your followers are looking for leadership. That means its time to trade the agony of laboring as a bewildered traffic cop for the ecstasy of being an effective communicator.

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