Picture your audience naked. It's the age-old advice given to public speakers everywhere. There's no denying that oration is a skill some seem to be born with while others have to work hard to master – but most people probably have a lot more raw talent in this area than they realise. Technologists in particular have been given a bum rap when it comes to public presentation. But as the profile of technology rises within organisations, and with it the profile of the leader, more effective communication skills are valued, even expected, of ¬senior IT executives more than ever before.
Headhunter with recruitment firm Talent2, Ian James, says the ability to speak in public settings is a big feather in the chief ¬information officer's cap.
"The role of CIO as a marketer is sometimes underrated," he says. "If you think about it, there is a lot of internal marketing. Being able to present ideas and strategy to the board or executive of the organisation is vital."
James says public speaking also delivers opportunities for self-promotion that demonstrate leadership capabilities. "Because hopefully you're being asked to present your ideas and actions – your success," he explains.
This is a positive for information chiefs hoping to promote their skills within their organisation, but can also be a useful tool for networking and building a more impressive resume. Gaining a reputation as a good presenter within your organisation can help launch a manager onto the public speaking scene and is a good way to build the skills needed on the conference circuit.
Symantec chief technology officer Mark Bregman says he started out as an internal organisational communicator before he was thrust into the external limelight.
"I think good communication skills are very important [for technology professionals]," he reflects. "Some are very technical but aren't very good at translating the deep technical things into plain language."
Bregman says the skill of being able to distil a complex technology or idea into simple terms is important beyond the speaking arena and can help make a better manager.
"Even within our own company there are times where I act as the liaison between our engineering teams and our field teams," Bregman says. "I can talk to the engineers in their language and then translate it into something the sales teams can also understand. With customers, I can understand the technical capability and translate that into customer value. "Not all CTOs can do that, but those that can often end up being pressed into service as a broader spokesperson or thought leader for their company."
Jetstar CIO Stephen Tame says a lot of the skill sets involved in public speaking are inherent in executive roles and highly valued.
"We have to present our business cases to the senior executive team all the time," he says. "It's the nature of the business."
Making a move into speaking at conferences usually starts with an invitation from organisers, but establishing yourself as a ¬regular is linked to the quality of the content of the speech, plus the speaker's charisma and proficiency.
Keith Barks, a conference manager at Informa Australia, says choice of speaker is normally determined by industry demand.
"We do research and speak to as many people in the marketplace as possible," he explains. "We talk to each of the players in that industry and find out what big implementations or projects are under way.
"Essentially what we want to do is work out what people want to hear about and who they want to hear from, then we will ¬usually approach the CIO or technology heads of those projects."
Barks says Informa relies heavily on feedback it receives from delegates to decide whether to invite someone back again.
"I know there are some in the industry who, after their first or second experience doing public speaking, aren't invited back," Bregman says. "I think the most important thing is not to stray beyond where you're comfortable with the content.
"If someone asks me to go give a talk about sales process, that's not what I know, so I would tell them I'm not the right person."
Bregman says knowing the subject matter back to front also diminishes the amount of preparation time needed. This becomes important when you're asking your organisation to support your participation in speaking engagements.
"My feeling is if I'm comfortable with the content I don't ¬usually need a very prepared speech," Bregman says. "In fact I find it very difficult when I'm given a script.
"I can use an outline to remind me to cover certain points, but for my style a bit of ad lib is much better. There are other people who just practise, practise, practise and then deliver a seamless speech and do it very well – but that's not really my style."
Former CIO for Housing NSW Vladas Leonas, agrees. "It is hard to say how long I spend preparing for a speaking engagement," says Leonas, who resigned from the department and left there recently after four years in the CIO position. "What ¬proportion of a project do you include as preparation for the presentation?"
And he says he likes to limit his speaking ¬work. "I only speak at one or two engagements a year," he says. "It is partly from personal choice, because of the time ¬commitment involved, and partly because of the material. I like to talk about things I have done already – completed – not something I am planning to do.
"The pace of delivery of outcomes for the organisation in that way dictates the pace of the presentations I can do."
But for some, like Centrelink's John Wadeson, public speaking has become much more central to the CIO role.
"On average I speak two to three times each week," Wadeson says. "Conflict over time often arises with travel, as it may be necessary to speak at events outside of Canberra, where I am based. But they are also great learning opportunities as well, and you have to allow for that when you look at the cost benefit of undertaking this kind of work."
Wadeson likes to work from notes, which helps him stay on track with his message without becoming stale. Bullet points can be helpful but he says speakers should never read word for word.
"I always try to have essentially one page of notes with the theme of the talk written in the centre," he explains.
"What I like about this style is that it keeps me on subject but not overly regimented."
It is an approach he shares with Leonas, Bregman and Tame, each of whom prefer a more flexible approach to presentation.
"You have to be passionate about what you believe, really know the material and try to challenge the audience," says Tame. "Have the objective that the audience should walk out with at least one new idea. If that's the focus you can generally get a lot of success."
Leonas says public speaking is a "win-win-win situation".
"It is good for the company because it raises the profile of the organisation," he says.
"Then it is a win for the individual because that person moves up, both in their own understanding of the issues while they ¬prepare for the presentation, but also in the sense that their ¬profile also grows.
"And it is good for the participants.
"Usually a presentation generates reasonably free discussion and questioning afterwards. This is really useful. Sometimes I understand certain aspects more after these discussions – things that I didn't think about before."
The ability to not just present to a crowd but to absorb their feedback is also very important. Tame says one of the great benefits of conference speaking is the learning he does himself.
"I speak at about five conferences in a year and the value I get is through contributing back into some broader thinking with my peers," Tame says. "I get to throw some of my ideas out there and see how they stand up to challenge. You need to see the process as a two-way street. You have to give and receive."
Barks says paying close attention at conferences is a great way for prospective speakers to learn what works and what doesn't, and pick up some ideas. You could even take some notes and read them over later that day or evening.
"When you are at conferences, don't just get in there, do your session and then leave," he says.
"Stay as long as you can and absorb. You can learn an awful lot, not just from the content but from their presentation styles, delivery and enthusiasm. You can learn a lot more outside the actual topic."
Symantec's Bregman observes: "There's a complementarity between my skills and profile as a public speaker and my ability to build a richer network among not only people in the software industry, but the tech industry in general.
"I don't know that I would pin my career on my public speaking ability but I do think it has helped broaden and enrich it – and it has certainly helped further my flight miles."
And Bregman has one final piece of advice: don't take it personally.
"Some people have a hard time because they internalise criticisms," he says.
"Don't worry about what the guy in the third row thinks of you. If he doesn't like your tie, or he doesn't like your presentation, I'm sure there are thousands of other people that will."
Vladas Leonas says he has led two lives. He spent the first part of his career in research and development in his native Moscow before migrating to Australia in 1991.
"The first time I spoke in public was for my academic work," says the former NSW Housing CIO. "This is where I got into public speaking, presenting the results of my research at conferences. It was not a difficult skill to develop. Starting at conferences, in front of my peers, it wasn't an aggressive environment so it was quite easy, in a sense.
"Here [in Australia] it was slightly different though. I remember vividly my first presentation in English. It was around 1986 at an international conference – still in Moscow – and it was difficult. I did speak English at the time but I wasn't as fluent as I am now. I didn't memorise the presentation by heart and that was the first and last time in my career where I read my presentation [from a script]."
Baptism of fire
Now an acclaimed speaker on the conference circuit, Jetstar CIO Stephen Tame says his first experiences were less than perfect.
"The first time I did it I nearly had laryngitis, it was that hard to get it out," he recalls. "I would say it was a disaster, although some of the audience would say I succeeded – through perseverance.
"It would have been about 1988. I was running the IT business systems for Australian Airlines at the time. We'd done some really good stuff with regard to the Australian Airlines credit card – the predecessor to the Qantas Frequent Flyer card. And we'd also done a lot around corporate reporting – before Amex and others did it – to be able to provide reporting back into the large corporates on their business travel.
"Because I was the business manager in charge of the IT group and also across the reporting issues, the sales guys decided to wheel me out in front of the BHP Billitons and governments to explain this concept to them. It was a bit of a baptism of fire, but once you go through those initial stages it becomes far more comfortable."
Tips to get you out there
Network: The best way to break into the conference circuit is to get your message out there. If you have an interesting story, tell it, and cultivate interest amongst your peers.
Practise internally: Take advantage of opportunities to increase your presentation skills within your own organisation and in settings where you feel less intimidated.
Know your limitations: If you're invited to present on a topic that isn't your core area of understanding, maybe it's best to pass.
Don't read: Never read from your slides or word for word from your notes. If you have prepared a speech, deliver it as unaided as you can. If you're comfortable, try using bullet points instead.
Go to conferences: Not only will attending conferences help you network with the right people to get your message out there, but you can also pick up tips and learn about presentation techniques by observing other speakers.
Becoming a 'thought leader'
Although he works out of Silicon Valley in California, Symantec's Mark Bregman actually got his start in public speaking Down Under.
"It was in 1995 and I was in Australia," he recalls. "I was working at the time for IBM as a technical assistant to the then [global] CEO Lou Gerstner. I was asked by the IBM Australia team to come down and spend a week speaking with customers.
"Unbeknownst to me they also lined up a bunch of opportunities, which were sort of public presentations about industry trends.
"Prior to that I had met with customers but I'd never been in that 'thought leader-influencer' role. After that in almost every job I've had that has been part of my role." MIS Australia
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