OPINION: There seems to be some kind of tacit understanding among our captains of industry that when they are obliged to deal with the media, the best form of attack is defence, says Chris Moerdyk.
One only needs to tune in to the average weekday business programme on radio to hear one chief executive after the other coming across as defensive, wary, monotonous and with a complete lack of conviction.
Of course, many might argue that, they have had their fingers burnt in the past by being far too candid and open during media interviews and that the less said the better.
But, that isn’t the case at all. My research into the way business people react with the media simply tells me they are acting out of instinct and not experience.
That their overly cautious approach is based solely on not wanting to make complete asses of themselves.
But business people are not alone. This strange affliction infects most human beings when they are faced with having to talk to an audience of more than one person.
Ever noticed how ordinary people talking to an audience at a family function or on TV or radio, start using archaic words they never normally even dream of using in day to day conversation? Our apartheid politicians used to do it a lot by peppering their public pronouncements with “inter alias” at the drop of a hat.
The reason for this is, quite simply, because we human beings believe that we are born with a natural ability to communicate.
Which unfortunately we weren’t. Animals communicate far better than human beings. Even amoeba communicate better than we do. We are nature’s worst communicators.
Which is why the average CEO believes that because he can wax lyrical in the boardroom or chairing a staff meeting, he is perfectly capable of talking to a radio or TV audience.
But, listen to virtually CEO in those two situations and he comes across as a completely different person.
That eloquent and charismatic leader in the boardroom becomes a stumbling, unconvincing bumbler in an interview.
And the reason for this is simply because they are on unfamiliar turf. Human beings have never been much good at dealing with the unknown and talking to a journalist in a studio or even at the end of a phone line, can be daunting and potentially very embarrassing. Or, so most CEOs think. So, they withdraw into a protective shell and make absolutely sure that they say as little as possible and choose their words painfully carefully.
And any natural ability to communicate is eroded by choosing words carefully. One does not come across as relaxed and confident, but rather overly cautious and lacking credibility.
To make matters worse, there seems to be another firm belief that under no circumstances should any CEO ever admit to having made a mistake or for his company actually doing something wrong.
Which is really strange in this day and age, because the power of apology is enormous. Since 9/11 and the Worldcom and Enron scandals, the modern consumer has become desperate for someone to trust. As a result, growing numbers of corporate executives are realising that the wrong thing to do is never to admit that they or their companies are wrong, because recent history has shown that absolutely no-one is perfect.
The power of apology reaps such high dividends nowadays that some companies are even apologising for mistakes they never made in the first place, because they realise how much consumers likes honesty.
But, most South African CEOs haven’t yet given a thought as to how to come across convincingly and honestly in interviews. They’re still winging it and hoping for the best.
It is quite remarkable when you think about the fact that most CEOs today have got to where they are through learning lessons either formally or informally. From real universities and the university of life.
But, so many simply refuse to believe they can be taught anything about speaking with conviction to large audiences.
Mass communication is both art and science. Very few human beings have the natural ability. But, while they’re happy to learn other skills, somehow learning to communicate properly seems to be tantamount to admitting some sort of physical or mental defect.
Follow Chris Moerdky on Twitter @chrismoerdyk
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