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Communicating effectively with journalists and stakeholders is becoming an increasingly important facet within the role of the modern C-suite executive. In today’s world, executives need to communicate professionally and coherently with multiple audiences.

Media training is important, but so too is going into it with a clear understanding of the techniques that are on offer and the ways in which you can maximise success from time spent in this area. Here, we look at how CEOs, CFOs, and other business leaders can get the most out of their executive media training.

Effective communications skills do not come overnight. As we saw in 2018 in the case of Elon Musk, even the most charismatic of business leaders can flounder when the right preparation is not put in place. Compare the Tesla and SpaceX CEO’s recent public performances with that of Google CEO, Sundar Pichai, whose appearance before US Congress at the end of 2018 reads like a blueprint for communications success. Like anything else, successful media training results require a pragmatic approach.

Begin with the end in mindOne of the key slogans from Stephen R. Covey’s 1989 book ‘The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People’ has long since become a cliché for life coaches and business gurus around the world. But from a training process point of view, there is a method in the “begin with the end in mind” mantra.

The key to successful media training sessions is to enter the room knowing exactly where you are going to be speaking and the skills that you would like to improve. Will you be presenting in person to the board? Are you appearing on television? If so are you looking down the lens or participating in a panel debate? Do you wish to introduce more of a human face into your public reporting? Or is the name of the game to make your performance shine ahead of an important business pitch? With a clear understanding of the platform you are due to be speaking on, including medium, tonality, and format, you can begin to gain an understanding of how you would like your overall performance to look.

Be aware of your strengths and weaknessesSome people are naturally charismatic, but they lack the techniques required to perform effectively in certain situations. Other leaders can be more understated, but with a keen eye for detail including facts and data they tend to perform better under pressure.

In order to exemplify this in the real world, we need to look back to our Tesla-Google comparison. For many years, Elon Musk, the Tesla CEO was lorded as one of the Silicon Valley Superstars of a modern enterprise. His SpaceX rockets and “fun” flamethrowers have attracted levels of publicity second only to the CEO’s own personal public appearances. But when Musk started to avoid what he defined as ‘boring’ ‘bonehead’ questions during a 2018 Tesla earnings call, the fun stopped.

The message here is that colloquial language and a grasp of the zeitgeist will get you so far, but ultimately that talent is going to fail you unless you have skills.

Compare that to the more recent public performance by Google CEO, Sundar Pichai, as he appeared before a US Congressional hearing. Pichai got his prepared remarks into Congress early, acknowledging people’s globalisation, privacy, and algorithmic-bias fears. Upon arrival, he was asked why, “if you Google the word ‘idiot’ under images, a picture of Donald Trump comes up.”

The Google CEO’s response was calm and communicative, outlining the mechanics behind the Google search engine in a way that could be comprehended by all, while ultimately delivering a level of transparency that answered the question without room for rebuke. He then went on to continue calmly, eloquently, and with facts and figures, listening attentively to questions and answering accordingly

Preparation is keyLike all things, preparation is the key to understanding where your strengths and weaknesses really lie, and where you should put your time against improving. A quick technique for identifying these areas is by conducting a ‘Rule of 9’ analysis:

  • Write down 3 areas of communications in which you feel you are already at least relatively strong. This could be anything from one-on-one meetings, to answering press enquiries via email, to speaking on the radio – where the physical positioning of your hands and gaze is less important.
  • Next, write down 3 things that you feel uneasy about from a communications point of view. Again, this can be anything and everything in the first instance, from looking down a television lens to the in-person reprimanding of an employee, to answering impromptu questions from investigative analysts during an earnings call Q&A.
  • Finally, identify the 3 situations in which you are most likely to take to the public stage. e. internal board meeting, television interview, broadcast earnings call, etc.

This can be done in less than 15 minutes and will give you at least a preliminary idea of strengths, weaknesses, and the overall outcomes you are trying to achieve. Once you have that starting point, you can then work with your professional media training body to tailor a programme that is right for you.

For example, we recently worked with a senior executive who was scheduled to appear on Nigerian television. While appearing generally confident, the CEO was less assured in front of the camera, though he recognised the value of this medium and held ambitions to progress to live international broadcasts for stations like CNN and the BBC in the future.

We began by working on the traditional press aspects of media, responding to journalists’ questions via email within 24hrs of receiving them, and building from that base of confidence. From there, this commentary could be tailored to form the basis of a soundbite ‘script’ or cheat-sheet, that could be calmly placed in front of the exec and used during in-front-of-camera training sessions. It’s this sort of work that enables execs to develop their own unique voice and to find the right balance between corporate and conversational speech that can make somebody particularly engaging on-screen.

At this point, we ask individuals to focus on 3 core messages that they would like to get out during the broadcast. Confidence in front of the screen is great, but it is important to remember why you are there and avoid going off on tangents, especially in a studio setting where you often have very limited time. By focusing on three key messages you ensure that you are using all the exposure you are given as effectively as you can while properly answering the questions. And of course, this material can then be used in other public speaking scenarios such as keynote speeches, earnings calls, radio broadcasts, etc.

Ask lots of questionsFinally, it’s important to keep asking questions through the entire process of media training. While stock soundbites and physical on-screen presence can be honed and committed to second nature, it’s as much about your understanding of media communications as it is about perfecting your craft. A good media training professional should act as a coach, working with the strengths and weaknesses of executives and providing a constant dialogue about the direction of travel along the way.

“It usually takes more than three weeks to prepare a good impromptu speech,” is a famous Mark Twain quote that we like to cite to the people we work with. That means staying diligent, practicing patience with yourself, and constantly asking questions to refine your understanding of the process along the way.