EEC Perspectives

Better Public Speaking: 6 Tips, 6 Sins and 1 Golden Rule

Does the photo look familiar? It might. I used it five years ago to illustrate this blog post on how to become a more effective public speaker. I attended several industry conferences earlier this year and found the same public speaking sins were still being committed that caused me to write this piece back then.

Hope springs eternal. We’re just about to enter the fall conference season, and you may have secured a speaking slot at an energy conference. Do not be afraid!  You were selected for a reason — probably that you are a subject-matter expert on a particular issue. But mastery of a field counts for little if you can’t persuasively convey that to an audience. We hope you can use some of these helpful hints for public speaking when it’s your turn to stand at the microphone.

My brain was under assault. Productive thought had long since vanished. I stopped taking notes two hours ago. More coffee was out of the question — my eyes already were twitching from too much caffeine. My mind wandered. In three hours I knew I would be at a baseball game with my family — but how would I pass the time until then? I couldn’t escape by playing with my mobile device because it couldn’t get a signal. I’m not actually in this photo, but I could have been.

I left the conference feeling drained and disappointed. It had been a disaster — two days of my life I will never get back. What happened? The conference focused on energy industry issues I knew were important. The session descriptions piqued my interest. The speakers boasted solid credentials. I had secured a complimentary registration, so my disappointment wasn’t a question of buyer’s remorse.

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Utility Communications: How to Stay Out of the “Smart-Talk” Trap

When was the last time you did a 540°?

What hill are you willing to die on?

Have you ever used “architect” as a verb?

Do you have enough bandwidth to growth-hack the analytics?

If you answered “yes” to any of these questions, you may have fallen into The Smart-Talk Trap. Some organizations reward people for sounding smart rather than being smart (or getting things done). People pursue (or attain) the perception of being smart by sprinkling the latest buzzwords, jargon or acronyms into their conversations (see Dilbert cartoon below). “Smart talk” people are betting no one in their audience is willing to raise their hand and say, “I’m sorry, what does that mean in plain English?”

DILBERT © 2015 Scott Adams. Used by permission of UNIVERSAL UCLICK. All rights reserved.

Utility Communications Can Fall Prey to Smart-Talk Trap

Although “smart talk” may be less prevalent in utilities compared to technology companies or consultancies, I suspect no business is immune. As Jerry Pfeffer and Robert I. Sutton, co-authors of the HBR “Smart-Talk Trap” article, wrote:

We found that a particular kind of talk is an especially insidious inhibitor of organizational action: “smart talk.” The elements of smart talk include sounding confident, articulate, and eloquent; having interesting information and ideas; and possessing a good vocabulary. But smart talk tends to have other, less benign components: first, it focuses on the negative, and second, it is unnecessarily complicated or abstract (or both). In other words, people engage in smart talk to spout criticisms and complexities. Unfortunately, such talk has an uncanny way of stopping action in its tracks. That’s why we call this dynamic the smart-talk trap.

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Crisis Communications: What’s Brewing Inside Your Utility?

Credit: iStock

“Do you ever speak on utility crisis communications?” Barry Moline, executive director of the California Municipal Utilities Association, asked me in a recent phone call. I told him I did. He asked if I could speak on that topic at CMUA’s annual conference. I told Barry I would be delighted. Readers interested in my take on utility crisis communications can check my previous blog posts, like here and here and here.

True or False:  Most Crises Take Place Outside an Organization

Maybe true. Maybe false. What we do know is that crises take place inside and outside organizations. What also is clear is that it’s generally easier for communications professionals to discuss a utility’s crisis communication response to an external event like a flood or tornado. Communications tied to internal problems tend to be more difficult.

Other speakers on that CMUA panel were scheduled to discuss their crisis communications work on external events: last year’s California wildfires and the potential collapse of a spillway at the Oroville Dam, the state’s second-largest reservoir.

Where could I add value to that panel? What wasn’t being discussed? I thought about the role organizational culture played in internally generated crises that have engulfed businesses and people in recent years: sexual misconduct in the workplace; United Airlines dragging a passenger off one of its planes; performance-enhancing drugs in sports; the malfeasance of financial firms that created the housing bubble and the Great Recession; and Enron.

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