MUST the CEO Make A Speech?

Alternative Techniques for Executive Appearances

At many business events it remains common to see a corporate executive -- often the same corporate executive year after year -- delivering a 45 or 60-minute address. This despite the fact that in the great majority of cases everyone knows the audience is hardly enjoying the experience.

In addressing this problem, there are two issues to consider:

(1) Is it really necessary for the CEO or other senior executives to be onstage at all?

(2) If executive appearance onstage is imperative, is speechmaking really the best way for company leaders to present themselves?

MUST the CEO (or any other executive) Make A Speech?

Lawson Software, Inc (now Infor Lawson Enterprise Financial and Supply Chain Management) was a provider of best-of-breed enterprise resource planning systems to mid-sized corporations, and one of America's fastest growing large companies. As Lawson's revenue surged from $20-million to over $400-million in just five years, the company's user conference and other events grew to become magnets for corporate chief information officers and their senior staff. Lawson Software’s CEO at that time — the company founder Bill Lawson — took the decision that he and his fellow senior executives would play no role whatsoever onstage at their events, believing that there were better ways to position their company and meet the needs of their user event guests.

Instead Bill ordered the creation of sector specific events for CIOs, each event aligned with the company's targeted industries: Healthcare, professional services, and retail.

At these meetings, Bill and his senior team sat in the audience, side-by-side with the customers. They stayed off the stage completely. There was no Lawson presence onstage at all except for a single logo.

This became a formula for immense conferencing success at Lawson: A summit that consists of session after session of topical discussions relevant to the CIOs in the audience. Each 75-minute session of the all-day conferences would feature five or six Lawson customers (CIOs) and industry analysts seated in discussion of relevant topics with Scott Shuster of BusinessWeek magazine. A full day of business discussions with no speeches whatsoever.

As a professional discussion leader, Shuster raises issues for discussion and frequently enters the audience with a microphone to enable the full involvement and participation of anyone who cares to become involved in the conversation. Over the course of the program nearly everyone in the audience becomes a participant.

The events, which ended only when the company was acquired by Infor, were immensely popular: Lawson Software conducted 12 of them in just 5 years.

Lawson’s format is one that will work well for any vending company reaching out to its customers. Attendees at such events invariably report that it is important to them to know they will not be subjected to a sales pitch from the stage. This was a major differentiating factor of the Lawson events. Selling occurred elsewhere: Not during the educational portions of the meeting.

Attendees also know that the content of such meetings will be 'objective.’ In the case of Lawson, company executives were specifically ruled OUT of setting foot onstage. All content, including the conceptual framework of each discussion, flowed from the CIOs (Lawson’s customers) themselves, as prompted by the questions from journalist Shuster.

Shuster empowers anyone in the room to draw the conversation in any direction at any time.

Attendees are aware that they will not only meet their peers at such meetings, but also learn from their peers. Many events bring peers together without a specific mechanism for the exchange of knowledge among them. Shuster’s meetings for Lawson and other clients achieve this in easy-to-program, easy-to-manage plenary sessions (there are no working groups).

The benefits for sponsors of such meetings are enormous:

The company is seen to be taking a very "high-road" approach to their event: Relevant content with only a low-level of off-stage sponsor promotion.

The cost of onstage presentation is extremely low. No fancy set, no expensive motivational speakers. The discussion leader - Shuster from BusinessWeek is the only paid person.

The content alone drives the appeal of these meetings. Everyone present feels good about that.

Easy programming, staffing, and management. As an all-plenary conference there is only one 'track' to program.

With no working groups to arrange, hotel costs are much lower and onsite staffing requirements are minimal.

Fewer event development staff onsite means there is more money available to bring more account executives to the meeting, where they can enjoy face time with the attendees over dinners, golf, and recreational activities -- as well as learn themselves, by sitting in on the plenary sessions.

If executive appearance onstage is imperative, is speechmaking really the best way for company leaders to present themselves?

At many meetings it is a must that the CEO or other senior executives present themselves onstage. The normal way to do this is to simply have the CEO step onstage and deliver an address from the lectern. Some CEOs who are particularly good at extemporaneous speaking will 'walk-and-talk,' -- Larry Ellison of Oracle commonly does this. Bill Gates used to conduct impressive demonstrations of recent Microsoft product innovation, sometimes operating two computers at once.

Great. People love to see the star CEO in action. But in most cases, the CEO onstage is engaging in a one-way address, in which in which it is apparent to the audience that the individual alone onstage - the CEO or sponsoring business unit manager — is setting the full agenda of their session's content. No matter how good they are at the lectern or at their chosen technique of speaking, this type of address does not position the executive as 'open to discussion,' 'listening,' or 'approachable.'

Q&A sessions after a speech can address this, but if the meeting is an internal one, most corporate audiences are reluctant to stand up and address the leading figure of their organization a probing question right in front of all their peers.

When the CEO or other senior figures must speak, the best way is to utilize a relaxed, seated conversation with an objective third party who will ask questions that give shape to the discussion, and actively encourage the audience to participate as well -- helping the most forthright in the group to overcome their hesitation and speak up.

Here again, BusinessWeek's Scott Shuster sets the example. Shuster has interviewed literally thousands of corporate executives in this manner, both at BusinessWeek events as well as at events sponsored by the speaking executives. For example, when Maurice Greenberg, then the chairman of insurance giant AIG, wanted to meet with commercial insurance brokers in 5 cities, he booked Shuster to interview him live in front of groups of over one-thousand brokers in every town. After the interview of Greenberg Shuster turned around and conducted similar discussions with each of the chairman's nine direct-report executive vice presidents.

In each case, Scott had had conversations prior to the event with each executive, to ensure that he asked questions that would enable each individual to make the points they absolutely needed to make before the gathered brokers. But once that was done, in each case Shuster was also able to ask other questions of his own formulation, ensuring that the event had the dynamism of a real journalistic interview -- which is exactly what it was.

By approaching their appearance in this way, the chairman and senior executives of AIG were able to position themselves as open, listening, thoughtful and approachable individuals, responsive to questions and completely accessible -- the goal of most CEO/senior executive appearances.

The DISCUSSION-DRIVEN session format addresses that goal much more effectively than a lectern-based speech.