Should you let your CEO go unscripted?

The author, a veteran speechwriter, asserts that affording your top exec the chance to ad-lib can be disastrous. He offers alternatives to binding your head honcho to a tight script.

Business leaders must connect with key audiences through speeches, talks and presentations.

In Weber Shandwick’s study of corporate reputation, The CEO Reputation Premium: Gaining Advantage in the Engagement Era, executives surveyed said, “It’s most important for CEOs to speak at industry-related events.”

CEOs might be tempted to make a radical change in the way they speak at the podium or in front of cameras.

If they have been paying even a little attention to the presidential race, they are certainly aware that Donald Trump’s stunning rise to the top of the polls is in large part because he comes across to audiences as “genuine” or “authentic.”

Moreover, one of the keys to that authenticity, the pundits say, is that Trump always wings it, never using prepared remarks when speaking to a crowd, to a reporter or in a debate.

Putting forth the ‘real you’

Carmine Gallo, the well-known communications coach and author of several excellent books on Steve Jobs’ presentation techniques, recently noted that both Trump and Joe Biden come across as genuine, displaying their real personalities, unfiltered by pretense (or high-powered image consultants). In large part, that’s because they speak without a script or a teleprompter (Biden often, Trump always).

“Voters crave the ‘real you’ in their political leaders just as employees want to see the ‘real you’ from their corporate leaders,” Gallo said.

So should CEOs “go Trump” and toss away their scripts?

As a professional speechwriter, I tremble at the prospect, needless to say. My self-interest aside, most executives and other leaders, when they are unscripted, do not communicate well with audiences. For many, the absence of written remarks can mean disaster.

When I was working with one high-profile CEO, for example, the staff told me their boss did fine when sticking to the script, but it was pretty awful when the boss started ad-libbing. I went to the videos, and the staff was absolutely right.

An Apple debacle

Probably the most famous example of the extreme dangers of “winging it” is from Walter Isaacson’s bestselling biography, “Steve Jobs.”

In 1997, Isaacson writes, Jobs had returned to Apple but was technically just a “part-time” adviser under then-CEO Gil Amelio. Amelio’s place at the helm was in danger, but he was afforded a great opportunity to rally the Apple troops behind him: He was due to be front and center at Macworld, delivering the keynote address before he introduced Jobs.

Isaacson describes what happened:

Amelio had gone on vacation, gotten into a nasty tussle with his speechwriters and refused to rehearse…. Amelio stood on the podium bumbling through a disjointed and endless presentation. Amelio was unfamiliar with the talking points that popped up on his teleprompter and soon was trying to wing his presentation. Repeatedly he lost his train of thought. After more than an hour, the audience was aghast.

The result: Amelio was gone before the end of the year.

However, it is also very true that many CEOs come across as boring at best, and phony at worst, when they read from a script or a teleprompter. How, then, can they speak effectively if both throwing away the script and reading from one can be detrimental?

For most executives, the key to engaging audiences and sounding genuine is the same one that is so crucial to other areas of business success—’assemble a good team.

That team should include a writer who produces text that captures the executive’s voice. That kind of a script helps the speaker relax, the first step to sounding natural. The speechwriter also has be to be flexible enough to modify the form and structure of the speech to meet the specific needs of the executive.

Alternatives for glib speakers

Not every speaker wants a complete script, containing every word of the presentation. Some want outlines, some want bullet points, some want a partial outline with text, and some want a partial text with bullet points, etc.

For one client, I started out writing complete scripts but realized he was at his best, and sounded most natural, with a good outline. That helped him give a tightly structured presentation, while encouraging his natural gift for improvisation.

The team should also include a presentation coach. Great presentation coaches can help even the stiffest CEOs take another step toward sounding authentic by using techniques to relax and communicate their “real selves.”

Finally, the CEO’s role on the team is to practice, practice, practice.

One irony of speechmaking is that, for most executives, the more rehearsed they are, the more natural and “off the cuff” they sound. In that way, effective speechmaking is a lot like great acting. When you see terrific actors give convincing performances, when they sound like real people voicing genuine emotions, you can bet they have spent hours in rehearsal.

That was certainly true for one of the greatest business communicators of them all.

A few years ago, I interviewed Lee Iacocca’s speechwriters for an article on

Mike Morrison, who wrote more than 600 of Iacocca’s speeches, told me, “He always spoke from a script, never spoke off the cuff.” However, because Iacocca put in the hours to rehearse and revise each speech, his delivery was so smooth, natural and relaxed that it sounded ad-libbed.

Alex Tsigdinos, who worked for Morrison, added this warning: “I think some executives think all they need to do is review a draft just before they give it, and they can waltz in there and win an audience over. Iacocca knew it wasn’t that easy.”

Going it alone at the microphone is working for Trump so far, but for most CEOs a team approach is a much better way to use the spoken word effectively.

Jeffrey Porro is a speechwriter in Washington, D.C., and the author of “Words that Mean Success.”

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