During the 1973 oil crisis — in which the Organization of Arab Petroleum Exporting Countries (OAPEC) proclaimed an oil embargo against the U.S. — T. Ed Griffith was an executive spokesperson for Getty Oil. He was responsible for media communications and also served as an expert witness, representing the company in court cases.
“My father’s reputation was built on his speaking skills, subject matter and legal expertise, and an extensive personal network,” recalls his son, T. David Griffith, adjunct professor at the Univ. of St. Thomas (Houston, TX). Ed Griffith prepared to represent the company by listening to his audience. “He believed communication was a two-way street, and listening and learning from others was more important than promoting the company point of view right away,” David says.
The audience changes everything
Griffith’s lesson is valuable for anyone serving as a spokesperson. It is critical to know your audience before attempting to communicate with them. “When you are a spokesperson, you need to adopt an ‘outside-in’ mindset. Seek to understand what is important to your outside audience — your stakeholders — so you can communicate in a concise manner to inform, persuade, and motivate them,” says Donatella Giacometti, executive communications strategist and founder of CEO MEDIA COACH, Inc.
Spokespeople today must prepare for more than news interviews and expert witness testimonies. They must also be the face and voice of their company for panel discussions, crisis communications, business presentations, earnings calls, and other situations where they must engage varied audiences. Moreover, modern media is everywhere. “Today, there are about 3 billion smartphones with video capability on the planet. As an executive spokesperson, everywhere you go, you’re in a video studio. Someone can stick a phone in your face, ask a question, then put the video out on social media, where it never goes away. You need to be ready for such challenges,” says Giacometti.
Follow this advice to become an effective company spokesperson.
Invest time in preparation
“Executives sometimes don’t see the value in preparing, or don’t have time to prepare. With the modern media landscape, if they aren’t prepared, it’s better to decline the speaking opportunity,” says Giacometti. “Going into any media situation and speaking off the cuff is a recipe for going off the rails.”
Develop your story strategy
When you speak on behalf of your company, you are the bridge between its story and stakeholders. Start by determining the story’s critical aspects and how they relate to your audience. For example, if you are discussing your company’s new product launch, convey how the product benefits its users and performs better than alternatives, rather than dwelling on novel product features.
Simplify your content
Technological, engineering, and scientific content tends to be complex. Focus on making these messages comprehensible, so that more stakeholders can understand and benefit. It can help to talk about your content as if you were explaining it to a young child. Use short examples or visual imagery to enhance your audience’s understanding.
Plan to convey no more than three key points to stay on topic and help your audience retain your message. Write your points out and rehearse them until you can deliver them naturally and confidently.
Prepare for the venue
You will be more relaxed in front of your audience if you know beforehand how the speaking venue will be set up. If you are part of a panel presentation, for example, will you be on a riser? Will you have a microphone in front of you or be sharing?
Get comfortable with technology
High-definition cameras, pervasive video, teleprompters, and open microphones are just some of the technology challenges you will face as a spokesperson, notes Giacometti. Practice ahead of time to increase your comfort level with technology. For example, if you have never worked with teleprompters, practice until using them is effortless.
Work with a media expert
Consider retaining a media coach if you seek to polish your skills. “Many experienced, senior-level spokespeople still get coached because they want to achieve that last 5% of excellence as they communicate across diverse media channels,” says Giacometti.
If you are in an industry where inaccurate news coverage is a concern, you may want to bring in a media consultant. “When it comes to speaking to the national press, you need to understand some news outlets are biased and may misquote you. A media consultant can help you understand media viewpoints and develop strategies before you speak to reporters,” says Kirsten Rosselot, principal, Process Profiles.
Prepare for Q&A
Develop a list of typical questions and answers and then practice delivering your answers concisely. Giacometti points out that if the question takes 30 seconds to ask, a good rule of thumb is your answer should take no more than one minute. Practice answering hostile questions so you can remain cool and professional in front of the audience. It is acceptable to say, “I don’t know” or, “I don’t have experience in that area, so I’m not the right person to provide information.”
This article originally appeared in the Career Connections column of the February 2020 issue of CEP. Members have access online to complete issues, including a vast, searchable archive of back-issues found at aiche.org/cep.