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Nov 30, 2009

Lights, camera, leadership

  • Effective communication is more important than ever
  • Most managers – even CEOs – are not good at public speaking
  • Preparation is the key to presenting yourself in the best possible light
  • Media training is important, but so is an understanding of what to say
  • Investors and media are demanding more and more contact from managers

A frequent refrain from investor relations officers is that their chief executive or CFO doesn’t shine at investor conferences or in media interviews. Here, media trainers provide tips and techniques for improving presentation skills. While targeted at CEOs, these skills apply equally to general counsel or any other member of senior management who may find him or herself in front of investors or the media.

Fail to prepare, prepare to...
1. Do your research. ‘The best way to ace a media interview? Prepare thoroughly,’ says Crystal Quast, director of media relations at investor relations firm Equicom. ‘Before agreeing to speak with a reporter, ask why he or she is writing the story, what the angle is and who else might be interviewed. Then you can develop a list of questions you might be asked. Jot down appropriate answers so you know what you want to say.’

2. Be mindful of the day’s news. ‘If you are on CNBC or talking to the Wall Street Journal, know what is happening in the business world that day because you may be asked your opinion on a recent move in the market, an announcement from a competitor or some other news development,’ says Michael Fox, president of corporate communications at Integrated Corporate Relations.

3. Practice bridging to key points. ‘Have a clear idea of the four or five key points management should make when being interviewed,’ states Colin Languedoc, senior consultant at BarnesMcInerney, the financial PR company. ‘In fact, never agree to an interview unless these are clear in your own mind. Write them out and learn to work them into the conversation in rehearsal. Regardless of whether you are asked a direct question permitting you to use the prepared answer, stay on message by learning to bridge to it in conversation.’

Looking the part
4. Check posture. ‘Your posture reveals the level of engagement and comfort you have,’ says Brad Wilks, managing director of Sard Verbinnen & Co. ‘Sit up, lean slightly forward and place your arms squarely on the desk or arm rests in front of you. If you are standing, stand square, place your arms comfortably to your side, and lean slightly toward the interviewer. These simple steps will simultaneously communicate engagement with your interviewer and confidence in the subject matter. Avoid negative body language such as slouching, rocking or leaning back in response to difficult questions.’ For some free video tips on media presentation, check out Stuart McNish, the host of DVD series On message, at

5. Try to smile. ‘Smile, smile, smile – CEOs need to be serious and times are tough, but viewers (and reporters) are influenced by the positive energy exuded by the person being interviewed,’ explains Fox. ‘Regardless of the circumstances, ensure you come across as energized and passionate about your business and as a likeable person. If people like you, they will be more receptive to your message.’

6. Dress to impress. ‘Dress more formally than your interviewer,’ advises Wilks. ‘Dressing for an interview depends on the surroundings in which the interview will take place. A good rule of thumb in any situation is to go one step above the interviewer. For example, if the interviewer is dressed in a shirt and casual trousers, do similarly – but wear a blazer. Unless you are a 23-year-old tech-sector wunderkind, most investors prefer CEOs who look the part of a business executive. In broadcast situations, choose simple patterns or solids for your tie, to avoid having it create distortion and distract viewers.’

In the heat of the moment
7. Turn negatives into positives. ‘Bad news makes for the best reading, so it’s hardly surprising that reporters frequently ask negative questions,’ notes Quast. ‘One way to turn a negative question into a positive comment is to use bridging sentences that help you redirect the question. For example, if a reporter asks you about staff cuts, one way to answer might be to say, What’s really important here is what we’re doing to keep as many members of staff as we can.’

8. Stay in control. ‘It’s only natural to want to strike back or defend yourself when attacked, so teach people to stay in control,’ says Jana Sanchez, CEO of corporate communications consultancy CitySavvy. ‘We remind people that they need to win over the audience by bridging back to key messages. If a journalist attacks but you remain calm, responsive and focused, it only strengthens your impact – especially on TV
or radio.’

9. Don’t say ‘no comment’. Roger Pondel, CEO of financial PR consultants PondelWilkinson, advises: ‘Saying ‘no comment’ to a reporter is highly frustrating when a piece of information is needed. It has become a dreaded cliché and is akin to telling the reporter, I am not going to allow you to do your job. There are other ways of saying ‘no comment’, including, I would really like to help you with the answer to that question, but it is my company’s policy not to disclose that information. Or, Until complete information is available, I am not in a position to answer that question.’

10. Make sure you are in the right frame of mind. ‘The psychological element is very important,’ says Warwick Partington, managing director at UK-based Media Training Masterclasses. ‘Alongside good coaching and practice, it helps interviewees to see every question as an opportunity. Tough questions give you the chance to demonstrate
confidence, resilience and empathy with the issues faced by the audience. For example, over the last 12 months in the energy sector, Andy Duff of RWE npower and Alistair Buchanan, the CEO of Ofgem, have both performed well while under intense scrutiny on UK retail energy prices.’

11. Avoid jargon. ‘You’ll come across as more expert if you’re able to explain things in language the interview’s target audience will understand,’ says Elly Williamson, consultant at M:Communications. ‘Knowing who your audience is and anticipating what terms you will need to explain will obviously help you. Not only will you avoid being misunderstood, but you will also come across much more sympathetically, as the audience will assume there are fewer differences between you and it.’

12. Make it personal. ‘People want transparency and honesty,’ comments Lord Alan Watson, chairman of CTN Communications. ‘As a result, corporate communication is becoming more personal, which is a good thing.’

Handling journalists
13. Remember that journalists are egocentric. Kim Fletcher, managing director of Trinity Management Communications, the presentation training arm of Brunswick, notes: ‘Praise the incisive nature of the interviewers’ last article, tell them how much you like their show, remark on their command of detail about your industry. Watch as their heads swell with pride. You, they think, are a fine judge of journalism. Suddenly their hearts are softer and they feel less inclined to ask the really tough questions.’

14. Don’t send thank-you notes. ‘Outside the US, the press and corporates tend to be friendlier and it’s not uncommon for CEOs to send a thank-you note to a journalist saying, Thanks for a great interview,’ says Monique Skruzny, partner at MBS Value, an IR and PR firm based in New York, around half of whose clients are based outside of the US. ‘That’s not done in the US, however, and we advise clients not to thank interviewers, who want to be seen as objective.’



Ratners Group

No list of business gaffes would be complete without Ratners. Gerald Ratner wiped £500 million ($831 million) off the value of his British jewelry company in 1991 during a speech to the Institute of Directors, when he said: ‘People say, How can you sell this for such a low price? I say, Because it’s total crap.’


Perhaps inspired by Ratner, Barclays CEO Matt Barrett followed up 12 years later with a similar gaffe, when he told a public committee he didn’t use his company’s credit cards as they were too expensive. He added that he advises his four kids to steer clear of credit cards.


CNN was broadcasting live when Microsoft founder Bill Gates attempted to demonstrate his new Windows 98 product at a trade convention in Chicago. Embarrassingly for Gates, the infamous blue screen of death – the screen that appears when Windows suffers a fatal error – flashed up behind him as a colleague tried to plug in a scanner.


Honesty is not always the best policy, it seems. Such was the case in 2002 when Gerald Corbett, then chairman of UK retailer Woolworths, admitted that little progress was being made following the store’s demerger from Kingfisher the previous year. In a speech delivered to hundreds of retail experts, Corbett gave his candid view that ‘some city center stores are vast open deserts with nobody there.’ His comments did little to help fill all that barren space: Woolworths struggled on for another six years before finally giving up the ghost in 2008, closing down its high street store chain at the loss of 30,000 jobs.

Tim Human

Tim Human is an international correspondent for IR magazine based in the UK Tim has been editor of IR Magazine, the global publication for investor relations professionals, since January 2013. Prior to becoming editor, he held various roles at IR...