Why Persuasive Speaking Matters

Take the time to observe master business communicators at work. Then improve your own skills to help you gain influence

According to Bill Lane, Jack Welch's speechwriter of 20 years, leaders at General Electric (GE) are required to be able to give powerful, persuasive presentations. Indeed, in his book, Jacked Up, Lane writes that when it came time to name a successor to the company's legendary former CEO, it was clear that each of the 23 candidates in the original field of successors were considered "good to great presenters…you simply cannot get a job at this level if you can't stand up and teach, and persuade, excite and lead."

As a business leader, there are some things beyond your control: stock prices, home values, and the future course of the economy. But the one thing you can control will set you apart from your competition—the ability to create and deliver presentations that inspire, excite, and persuade. Remember, at GE and plenty of other companies large and small, excellent presenters normally reach more potential customers, sell more, and help their companies expand more quickly. Here are three ideas that will help you hone your presentation skills.

Keep it concise. A boring presentation is a wasted opportunity. Research tells us that the human brain does not pay attention to boring things. It looks for emotional experiences. The quality of your presentation is far more important than the length. Many presenters are under the mistaken impression that longer is better. A presentation that goes on forever is a sure way to bore your audience. According to Bill Lane, "all first-draft presentations are too long and should be cut. Second, third, and fourth drafts should be cut further." I recently wrote a column based on a presentation Bill Gates gave at an annual conference called TED. After the column was posted, the organizers wrote to tell me that all speakers are kept to 18 minutes. They said 18 minutes is long enough to develop a point, but short enough to hold everyone's attention. It forces speakers to focus on their stories and word choice.

Gain instant credibility. Now more than ever, your customers want to hear from someone who is transparent and humble. Lane's advice: In any presentation, "season a success story with some commentary on 'where we came up short' or 'where we could have done better.' These are enormous credibility enhancers." The other week, I wrote a column about injecting a healthy dose of optimism into presentations. Optimism and positive success stories will leave your audience uplifted and eager to embrace your vision. But you must be careful to avoid raising their bullshit detector. Offering a we-messed-up-on-that-one-but-here's-what-we-learned refrain will go a long way toward enhancing your credibility.

Strive for simplicity. Jack Welch hated jargon, buzzwords, and obtuse language. He transformed communications at GE by demanding straightforward language of himself, his speechwriter, and other leaders who gave presentations. During the dot-com mania, audiences grew skeptical of clichés such as best-of-breed, paradigm shift, and bandwidth. The financial crisis has ushered in a new wave of confusion. Work to identify and remove all language from your presentations that your audience would need a dictionary to understand. The other day I heard a young man say his consulting practice will help me gain "share of wallet" and "win ratio efficiency." I thought to myself, this guy wouldn't have lasted a minute under Jack Welch.

Above all, remember that improving your presentation skills is possible only after you accept the notion that your presentations might not be as persuasive as possible. It's not a skill you're likely to have learned in school. Earlier this year, I spoke to a group of MBA students at a prestigious university. They told me that while their course load is heavy on economics, finance, and marketing, it's light on oral communication skills. Unfortunately, most business professionals never practice these skills once they leave school. Most people figure if they can talk, they can communicate. But the ability to speak should not be confused with the ability to persuade.

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