Public (and private) speaking

Sept. 15, 2010

One day, Eric Randa, our vice president of loss prevention, dropped off a three-page memo. I scanned it and called him back into my office. “Eric,” I said, “this is a great memo, but I need you to condense it and make it simpler.” In fact, I said, write every memo like it’s for the president of a company, someone who has to read a hundred memos a day and doesn’t have time to read two pages, let alone three.

Eric did exactly that. At the next executive committee meeting, I handed out Eric’s memo and said I wanted all memos done in that format — short paragraphs, subheads, crisp writing and lots of bullet points. “Tom called it the ‘President Randa format’ and everyone had a good laugh,” Eric recalled.

For all the effort to keep it plain and simple, the near universal use of e-mail, instant messaging and phone-texting tempts us to backslide into vagueness. Digital communication lends itself to shorthand and slang, with new abbreviations invented daily.

To avoid confusion, write full sentences that err on the side of polite formality. Also, treat e-mail the way a driver approaches her car — don’t use it if you’re tired or tipsy, or you may steer your business into a ditch.

I have a low tolerance for sloppy verbal communication, too. The breaking point for me was a high-level team meeting where a key exec stated a “fact” that threatened to reverse an important decision we were about to make. I asked if she was 100% certain.

“Absolutely,” she replied. That wasn’t the way I recalled the matter, so I asked her for supporting documentation. Sure enough, she had erred.

Bad information creates chaos and sabotages team goals. Recognizing, however, that this exec was already embarrassed by her mistake, I reined in my frustration and stressed to the team that success hinged on airtight info. Effective immediately, I said, we need to be precise with our language and extraordinarily careful not to confuse “probably” or “pretty sure” with “absolutely.” My executive’s red face and my own exasperation were a small price to pay for purifying the process.

Stepping up a level of communication, the bully pulpit can spread the word fast. Seize every opportunity to address your troops. One well-crafted speech saves time and magnifies impact. For that matter, don’t pass up outside engagements — speaking to community groups extends your company’s goodwill (and brand).

You just need to know how to perform like a pro.


Setting the stage

Know your audience. Chat up the organizer (or, for in-house talks, the employee closest to the action). First, nail the facts: number of attendees, average age, gender breakdown. Next, ask three questions to gauge the attendees’ state of mind: Do they know who I am? Is attendance voluntary? How much do they know about the topic? Finally, ask what’s dominating water cooler chatter so you can slide into their rhythm.

Assemble the bones. Ask yourself three questions: What’s the goal of this talk? How can I take the audience from here to there? What could block their understanding or acceptance? The answers will provide the perfect bulleted outline and a talk title that conveys your core message.

Personify your talk. Put your fingerprints on the content, especially if you’re covering familiar territory. Spring off audience concerns to explain the connection between your words and their immediate future. Remember, the audience is consumed with one thing: What’s in it for me?

Keep it conversational. Jot down key words on recipe cards to keep your train of thought on track. If you must write out the whole thing, say it out loud as you write, like you’re telling a friend what’s on your mind.

Polish the apple. Put away your notes for a day or two, then review them with fresh eyes. Look for ways to clarify points and trim fat. Does your opening clearly state your message? Does your kicker summarize your big points and link them to action steps?

Practice, practice, practice. Do a run-through with a colleague. Or, speak in front of an empty chair, a stand-in for the audience. Speak conversationally. Slowly. When you’re finished, do it again — and again and again and again, until it’s second nature. (Cures for stage fright: Dale Carnegie courses and Toastmasters.)

Proof your intro. Find out who’s introducing you and ask if you can see her remarks in advance. Check that the title of your talk is correct. Fix any errors and offer updated info.

Create a checklist. Detail everything you need: laptop, note cards, charts, handouts, Prozac. Using audiovisual equipment? Do a dry run to avoid game-day fumbles.

Waiting in the wings

Walk the room. Before anyone arrives, get a feel for the place. Practice your entrance and exit. Test the microphone. Ask someone to stand at the back of the room to confirm that your voice will carry.

Locate the lights and power sockets. Make sure all systems are go (for PowerPoint presentations, position a laptop screen in front of you as you face the audience).

Think drink. Keep a bottle of water nearby. Periodic sips keep your voice strong. But don’t overdo it — unless the talk is long enough for you to take a bathroom break.

Relax. Before stepping into the spotlight, breathe slowly and deeply for 30 seconds, preferably with your eyes closed. Slow, deliberate breathing calms your nerves and opens your mind.

Real-time reminders

Don’t hide behind the podium. It’s a home base, not a planting pot. A wireless lavaliere mic lets you roam among the audience.

Slow down. Novices can jabber at warp speed, making it hard for audiences to digest the message. Don’t underestimate the value of a pause; few things grab an audience’s attention quicker.

Be yourself. Talk with the audience, not at them. It may help to pretend you’re chatting with close friends. Keep your head up. Establish eye contact. If you know your material well, believe that the words will come. Better to stumble occasionally — and come off as genuine — than robotically recite every point from a canned script. Key words on note cards or a PowerPoint presentation can help avoid losing a lot of eye contact.


Show time

Blast out of the gate. For some reason, audiences aren’t always breathlessly anticipating your pearls of wisdom. Stomachs will growl. Dozers will daydream. Somebody will come fresh from a fight with her boss (or husband). Grab the room’s attention, or its funny bone.  That first minute sets the tone. Do not slam that window of opportunity by droning on about how happy you are to be there, in Kansas City — I mean, Cleveland. And for the love of God, do not try to lower expectations by claiming to be a poor speaker, or that you’re unprepared, or not feeling well. If you do, that splashing sound you’ll hear will be your presentation falling into the toilet.

Give it your heart and soul. Infect your audience with your passion and enthusiasm. Only your very best will get the room buzzing.

Interact. Pepper your talk with questions to the group as a whole and to individual audience members by name: What would you do if that happened, Sharon?

When appropriate, role-play with a volunteer — “showing” always trumps “telling.”

Spin a yarn. Facts and figures get their attention. But a good story gets them thinking, feeling and caring. Your audience will lap up every word when you tell them how getting booted from your first job saved your career. Or, how your top sales guy hurdled a roadblock to close the deal of the century.

Messages delivered with inspirational stories are like mixing cod liver oil into a milkshake — it goes down easily and gets absorbed.

Call to action. Firing them up is pointless unless you demonstrate how to stoke the coals. Show how to translate your lessons into everyday actions that yield results.

This article is one of a series from “The Big Book of Small Business” by Tom Gegax with Phil Bolsta. Copyright 2005, 2006 by Tom Gegax. Published by arrangement with HarperCollins Publishers.

Best-selling author Tom Gegax, co-founder and chairman emeritus of Tires Plus stores, served as that company’s chairman and CEO for 24 years. By the time he sold the company in July 2000, it had mushroomed from a concept sketched on a restaurant napkin to a market leader with 150 upscale stores in 10 states and $200 million in revenue. Thanks to Tom’s warm-hearted, tough-minded approach to management, and his team’s relentless focus on customer service, the company’s turnover rate ranked among the industry’s lowest, and its guest enthusiasm index reached 98%. He was named Modern Tire Dealer’s Tire Dealer of the Year in 1998 and a Midwest Entrepreneur of the Year by Inc. magazine.

In 2000, Gegax founded Gegax Management Systems ( to help growing companies raise profits and reduce stress through fast and affordable business management guidance. For more information, contact him at [email protected].

About the Author

Bob Ulrich

Bob Ulrich was named Modern Tire Dealer editor in August 2000 and retired in January 2020. He joined the magazine in 1985 as assistant editor, and had been responsible for gathering statistical information for MTD's "Facts Issue" since 1993. He won numerous awards for editorial and feature writing, including five gold medals from the International Automotive Media Association. Bob earned a B.A. in English literature from Ohio Northern University and has a law degree from the University of Akron.