Training September 2014

Elites Who Can’t Cut It At Public Speaking

bannerSociety approves titles and status, especially in Japan. We rise through the ranks, picking up titles and accruing status, and following the Peter Principle management theory, we peak at our upper level of incompetence.

Our respect and credence is amplified through our position of power, but our personal power could be suddenly exposed when we open our mouths in public, revealing we are severely wanting.

I was at a function recently where one of the bureaucratic elite in Japan gave a keynote presentation. Generally, you become an elite official in Japan because you went to the “right” elementary, junior and senior high schools, and then university.

The reason certain schools are generally considered “right” is because they have a system in place to help you become a legend in memorisation, rote learning and test taking. At university you cram for the national selection exam where, again, memory and exam technique are the most rewarded skills.

You join a ministry and work for what seems like a squillion hours every day, for years, simultaneously looking for a powerful patron to whom you can pledge total loyalty. After decades of dedicated progress, you emerge an elite official.

Now, part of the bureaucratic upper crust, you are called upon to represent your organisation and speak in public. This is when the whole edifice often comes crashing down.

This particular official I heard speak was sent out to promulgate the new way forward for his political masters, impress everyone with the potency of their new policies, and win adherents to the path forward.

But, he failed. Why? Because he spoke softly, without energy or passion, and showed nothing to indicate he felt at all impressed with his own recommendations. He looked down at his papers or up at the screen, and hardly glanced at the audience. He ignored the opportunity to make eye contact, use the power of his face and the tonal variations of his voice.

His slides were crowded with content and featured too many colours. The key message was unclear, there were no highlights, and nothing was memorable. His closing of the speech left no impression. He was a truly dull correspondent and we were completely dulled to his message.

There were no converts that day. He could tick the box though; the task was completed—a total failure—but completed.

During the Q&A period he did not paraphrase the questions or add any positive messages in his answers. Astonishingly, his energy did perk up like a man really engaged; sadly it was only sustained for 30 seconds, but it showed he did have it.

So, why didn’t he show this energy while he commanded the stage? I would proffer he had no concept of, or appreciation for, the immense power he wielded. Obviously he had received no effective training or preparation for his task. He was a total failure as a communicator; instead he became a message killer and brand assassin.

Was he an exception among the bureaucratic ranks of the gifted, great and plausible public speakers? No, he was typical of that bevy of elite officials, who are mainly relying on acquired status, and have almost no ability to project personal power.

Another vaunted profession is that of the elite government official who works in the foreign service. You would think that given the high-profile nature of their job, these officials would be experts in promoting their respective countries. But, no.

Unfortunately I suffered more of the same at a speech by an ambassador. He delivered his message in a monotone, weak voice, sputtering forth ums and ahs aplenty, without engaging the audience. His voice sounded very weary and the last three or four words in every sentence just slowly petered out.

The energy and tone subsided, guaranteeing the key message was a total downer, regardless of the actual meaning of the words.

Was this a one-off? No. I have seen this gentleman in action on many occasions and there is a consistency to the way his public speaking style murders his country’s brand. In my 28 years of experience, I have found his example is not unusual. Do these career diplomats get proper training in the art of public speaking?

Astoundingly no. They have large analytical abilities, are highly intelligent, and can really shine in small meetings, where they can one up their rivals to be the smartest intellect in the room.

So, they get promoted and then propelled to the stage, handed the microphone and away they go into ineptitude, writ large, under lights, and in front of the assembled masses. The fundamental error is that they simply don’t value having public presentation skills.

The worst public speaking experience of my career was having to give a speech on behalf of one of our ambassadors. The talk was in Japanese, which was no issue; the content, however, was challenging. There are four main types of speeches, namely, those to inform, persuade, entertain and impress.

However, foreign ministries around the world, seem to favour the data dump, inform type of speech, which tends to lead to lots of dull information being imparted. Why they don’t go for the persuade type is a bit of a mystery to me. I absolutely gave the speech my best shot to liven it up, while religiously sticking to the approved text, but what torture it was.

Imagine combining dead data with a dead delivery. You have a massive bromide thundering down to bludgeon unsuspecting audiences into stupefaction. But it doesn’t have to be like that.

There are some bright spots of hope though. Former Ambassador Motohiko Nishimura, whom I met in Osaka in the mid-1990s during his posting to Kansai, was skilled and excellent. In English or Japanese, he was the consummate diplomat, as he could use his speaking power to capture an audience. I am sure he was a tremendous asset in creating support for Japan.

To the elite officials and aspirants out there, get some training and represent your ministries with aplomb. Boys and girls—be ambitious? No. Be persuasive.