A lesson for executives from Nick Clegg

With a few notable exceptions, most senior executives are not very good at public speaking, by which I mean real public speaking, not just standing up and droning through a Powerpoint presentation.

One of the main reasons for this is that senior people spend most of their time surrounded by people who think like they do and, in many cases, owe their positions in the organisation to the top man or woman’s patronage. For this reason, people don’t often ask them awkward questions. On the rare occasions where they do speak to larger audiences they deliver scripted lines, hide behind dozens of presentation slides and ensure that the time for questions is limited. No-one likes to look a prat and one way of making sure you don’t look like a prat is to structure an event so tightly that it leaves no risk of awkward or unforseen subjects being raised.

This is all very well but it can lull people into a false sense of security. The executive convinces himself that he is a great presenter and that all his arguments make sense because no-one ever gives him a hard time, conveniently forgetting that he has created the conditions where, effectively, no-one can give him a hard time. This means that when he is faced with an unpredictable audience, such as disgruntled employees, shareholders or, God forbid, members of the public, the once great senior executive wilts under the heat. Blinded by his own hubris he fails to prepare properly. Under an unexpected attack, he stumbles over his words, laughs nervously, makes inappropriate jokes, breaks into a cold sweat and, eventually, gets frustrated and offends someone. I’ve seen it happen more than once. And, yes, I’ve done it myself.

Nick Clegg admitted that he was very nervous before Thursday’s televised debate. I’m not surprised. There was a lot at stake. I would have been bricking it. So did he win because he is highly intelligent, quick-witted and supremely articulate? Well he may be all those things but that’s not why he came over so well. He won because he had been practising for three years.

No matter how well you understand your own ideas and arguments they never sound the same when you try to explain them out loud to a large audience. It’s not the same as discussing them with your management team. You have to learn to explain things succinctly, respond to questions and diffuse any hostility in the audience. If you haven’t practised, the first time you try to do this you will probably fall flat on your face, however logical and sensible your arguments are.

Ever since he was elected Lib Dem leader, Nick Clegg has been touring the country meeting groups of local people. Almost certainly there will have been occasions, especially in the early days, when Nick got tongue-tied, broke out in a sweat, got angry or said something stupid. But these things all happened in draughty halls in provincial towns on wet Tuesday evenings with few journalists watching. By the time he appeared on Thursday night’s debate he had heard all the questions before and had answers for them. He had honed his debating style and even developed a few little tricks like remembering the questioners’ names. Above all, he had learnt to control his anxiety.

That’s the trick. Rather than hiding behind Powerpoint slides, if you want to learn how to handle yourself in front of large and potentially hostile audiences, you need to do more interactive question and answer sessions. Start off with small groups where you feel safe. Ask yourself, “What are the questions I really hope they don’t ask?”  then get your colleagues to ask you those questions. Practise your responses so that you get used to delivering them while managing your own anxiety. Then move onto bigger groups and do as Nick Clegg did – keep on doing it until you get good at it. Like him, you will always be nervous but the more you do it, the more you will be able to manage the fear.

Town Hall style meetings are becoming increasingly popular in the corporate world. Employees are much less deferential now and are often prepared to ask awkward questions of senior managers. The ability to handle these sort of events becoming more important, especially now people expect top managers to be more visible. More free-form meetings and fewer stylised presentations is the way to develop these skills. As Nick Clegg has shown, there is no better preparation for something daunting than just going out there and doing more of it.

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