Jeff Porro’s unique combination of talent and experience helps executives use the spoken word to engage their most important audiences – funders, clients, investors, employees, the press, and the public. We had a chance to chat with Jeff about the importance and impact of a powerful speech and how it can affect the leadership effectiveness of the person giving it.
Tell us a bit about your background. Why did you decide to become a speaking consultant and freelance speechwriter?
After working for about a decade as a jack-of-all-trades freelance writer, I’d proved to myself I could earn a living – but I was getting a little bored. I worked with an executive coach who helped me discover my passion and decide where I wanted to focus the rest of my career: speechwriting.
I really enjoy speechwriting because it requires a combination of skills. I have to be able to tell stories, provide vital information, understand audiences, and capture a personality through words. That last aspect ties into my “secret life” as a screenwriter.
Okay… is it really possible to improve a speech simply by using different words?
Absolutely. Speechwriting is writing for the ear. That is much different than writing for the eye, which is what you do when you produce an article or an annual report. One of the elements that makes a terrific speech is word choice; some words and phrases are simply more resonant, evocative, and downright powerful with audiences than others.
Just one example: years ago, the comic Bob Newhart had a routine where he played a PR guy advising President Lincoln on ways to improve his image. One of his suggestions was that in the Gettysburg Address, Lincoln should say “47 years ago,” instead of “Four score and seven years ago.”
When it comes to the skill of public speaking, how much of it is innate and how much of it is learned?
For some reason, many executives think they are either born good speakers or they’re not. That’s not true. Public speaking is a skill. And like any other skill, you can get better and better if you learn the fundamentals and then practice, practice, practice. Of course, as with almost any other skill, some people will be born with more public speaking aptitude than others. But I know from experience that any executive can become a very good speaker.
What are some of the main differences between a corporate leader speaking effectively to shareholders and he or she speaking effectively to employees?
This question highlights one of the most important elements of an effective speech: it must be customized and targeted to resonate with the concerns of a specific audience. As I say to clients, a generic speech is a bad speech.
And a good speech must connect with an audience quickly. In the first few minutes of a speech, the audience is looking for answers to two questions: does this executive understand my needs and concerns? And does the speaker really know what he or she is talking about?
That’s why one of the most important tasks of a speechwriter or a speechwriting team must be done before the first word of a speech is written: learning what is on the mind of the intended audience – and especially what’s keeping those listeners awake at night. While each particular audience is different, shareholders generally want to know as much about the company’s bottom line as possible (profits, dividends, sales, growth, projections, etc.) Employees are also concerned about the bottom line, but they want to know how the company’s performance will affect the quality of their job life – and (obviously) their job security. Finally, both audiences need to hear a clear statement of the executive’s vision for the company – a vision that gives them confidence about the future of the organization.
How much of your advice and consulting centers on a speaker’s nonverbal communication and/or overall presentation skills?
I sometimes give informal advice to speakers about their presentation skills, but I’m really the guy who writes the scripts. At the same time, I know nonverbal communication and overall presentation skills are vitally important to the success of a speech. That’s why I often work with a trusted partner who specializes in speaker training. An effective speech is definitely the product of teamwork – most importantly among the speaker, the speechwriter, and the presentation coach.
What suggestions would you give to a corporate leader who is trying to motivate employees for or about a team-building exercise?
I just worked with the head of a rapidly-growing small business who wanted to do exactly that. What I advised him, and would advise every corporate leader, is to go positive. Be frank about the company’s problems and challenges, but link the need for team building to your vision for the company. Show how the exercise can lead to an inspiring future, contribute to a better world, give each employee a chance to reach his/her potential, place the company on the vanguard of progress, etc.
How can a corporate leader obtain feedback or clues relating to whether or not his/her speech accomplished its goals?
The most obvious and systematic way is to distribute simple evaluation forms to an audience. However, that is not always practical, especially when the speech is a keynote to a large audience. My experience has been that the executives who really care about giving effective speeches (and improving their public speaking) surround themselves with trusted advisers who will give candid feedback. As an example, I was brought in to work with the CEO of a large nonprofit after the executive heard regularly from board members and major donors that the CEO’s speeches were falling flat.
With the rise in the use of technology, automation, and artificial intelligence to deliver information, do you think leaders’ speeches will be as important or impactful in the next ten to twenty years?
I do. In fact, I think leaders’ speeches will become even more important for a couple reasons. First, even in an age when it seems a new form of information technology pops up every five minutes, people still crave the human connection. They still want to hear and see an actual human being giving a speech. Think of the thousands of people who waited for hours to see their favorite presidential candidate, often to sit so far away that they could barely make him or her out at the podium.
At the same time, new technology is bringing speeches by corporate leaders to ever wider audiences. Recently, I read that the CEO of AT&T gave a very thought-provoking speech to employees on race relations. Twenty or thirty years ago, I would have been lucky to track down a transcript. But today with Google and a mouse, I was able to find the speech in a couple minutes… and watch the whole thing on my phone.
Afraid of public speaking? Hear how uncertainty and fear yield excellence and achievement by booking a speaking engagement with Matt Walker today!