Investors in a hotel meeting room wait to hear presentations from two utility CEOs, a widely-followed financial analyst and a respected portfolio manager. The CEOs start. Each one shows PowerPoint slides that illustrate their large companies’ “bright futures.” As they speak, people in the audience read Blackberries and Wall Street Journals.
Up next is Ken, the financial analyst. He begins, “At the end of this presentation I may not have many friends left in the audience.” At once, Blackberries and newspapers drop. Ken describes the losses in the CEOs’ companies and questions their ability to navigate industry change. The audience is abuzz when he sits down. Were the executives insulted or inspired by his candor?
Finally Scott, the portfolio manager, goes to the podium. “When I’m finished,” he states, “I know I won’t have friends left in the audience.” Now everyone pays attention. Scott describes a meeting with his investors, who are angry and upset because the fund is losing money. One investor, “a retiree with hands the size of meat loaves,” shouted out loud, “Why should I invest in your fund?”
Scott pauses and turns to the CEOs. He asks them, “Why do you deserve this man’s capital, his savings from a lifetime of hard work?” Startled, the CEOs offer canned responses.
Over dinner that night, people from the audience agree that the CEOs’ remarks were predictable and forgettable. They believe that Ken connected with the audience, but his remarks were noteworthy for their tone and less for their content. Scott, however, connected with everyone. His message stuck. His authenticity made a difference.
This story offers four lessons for becoming an authentic rock star communicator:
1) Find the right words: The words chosen by the speakers made all the difference. Clichés, like “bright future” and “create shareholder value,” anaesthetize audiences. In contrast, the word “friends” chosen by the portfolio manager transformed the meeting from merely exchanging financial and strategic information, to an opportunity for building relationships. Why does this matter? Warren Buffett once said that finding “the right word” is everything. Until he did this, he could not get his thinking clear—and clarity is essential to build trusting relationships. They are the foundation for growing sustainable, wealth-creating businesses.
2) Invite in the elephants: Make a difference by inviting the elephants into the “room” of your communication. Scott did this by describing his client’s hands, the “size of meat loaves.” This image restored the power relationship between the CEOs as managers of the company and their shareholder bosses, including those who need company profits to support their retirement savings. Today, the words “fiduciary responsibility” are too often absent in corporate governance reporting. They have been replaced by words like “compliance regulations”, “executive compensation committees”, and other bromides intended to put non-CEOs to sleep. This is why the audience was galvanized by Scott’s story.
3) Speak from your authentic purpose: Look at your thumb print: no one in a world of 7.2 billion people has a thumbprint like yours—it makes you unique. Now consider that you share 95 percent of your genetic code with a mouse. Ask, “What am I doing to differentiate myself from mice?” How am I using my unique gifts? Ask your friends and colleagues to name them. The ones that passionately resonate with you are true gifts. Use them and hard work will seem effortless.
Does the work you do lie somewhere near the intersection of your greatest joy and the world’s greatest needs? Choosing self-actualizing work requires courage. Scott and Ken had a choice. They could have engaged in the predictable investor meeting dance of giving and questioning information. Instead, they spoke from a calling—to passionately speak truth to power. This choice revealed their unique thumbprints.
4) Engage energetically: Emotional engagement inspires energetic commitment. The post-meeting dinner conversation with investors showed they had listened to Scott and Ken’s remarks with more than their ears; they had also listened from their minds, hearts, skin, and from each cell in their bodies. Their committed listening arose from these speakers’ commitments to finding the right words, inviting elephants into the room, speaking from authentic purpose and engaging energetically.
Words have power. They influence our breathing, the very source of our life. Saying the words “thank you” causes us to exhale slightly. Our bodies move closer to the person we are thanking. When we say, “I appreciate you,” we inhale and move slightly away from our listener. Words reflect our inner truths and emotions. They will evoke emotional responses in our audience. The philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein described this power succinctly, “The limits of my language are the limits of my world.”
What can we expect from authentic communication?
Several weeks after this investor conference, one of the two CEOs spoke at another conference attended by some investors from the earlier meeting. He reported on company sales, profits, strategic initiatives and industry regulations. He also commented on how he was being accountable to his investors. He told them about an investor-retiree with meat-loaf-sized hands.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
L. J. Rittenhouse is CEO of Rittenhouse Rankings Inc., a distinguished communications company that shows executives how to exploit the risk-mitigating and wealth-creating advantages of Corporate Candor. An author and speaker, L.J. has been featured on CNN, The Wall Street Journal and selected as one of the Top 100 Thought Leaders in Trustworthy Business Behavior in 2013. Warren Buffett recommended her best-seller, Investing Between the Lines in his 2013 shareholder letter. For more information, please visit www.RittenhouseRankings.com.