Chuck Smith

Communication Skills Count

June 30, 2005

Case categories include: Leadership   

By Robert Sher
The Alliance of Chief Executives brought Chuck Smith, CEO of SBC West to an invitation only, private session on June 17, 2005.  Over 100 members attended, and Mr. Smith’s comments about business leadership were on point and valuable for all.  His incredible presentation style and command of the audience demonstrated some of his skills he uses in leading the 55,000 employees at SBC West.

Chuck Smith works an audience as easily as most people work a toaster.  When you have to lead 55,000 employees in a public company, communication to big groups of people is key.  While he talked about leadership and other topics, the real lesson comes from watching him lead as he spoke.

He urged all CEOs to learn to communicate well, then over-communicate – to say the key messages over and over, until there is no doubt that the organization gets it.  It takes lots of repetition to be effective.

While few of us in the Alliance have that many employees, it still holds that when we gather some or all of our people around us, we need to leave the team pumped up and focused.  As I reflected on the exceptional performance he delivered, I analyzed some of the key techniques he used.

Use emotions to move your audience
Smith made heavy use of emotion through most of the talk.  His face and tone shifted dramatically each time, sometimes acting happy, other times passionate, frustrated, smug, and so on.  With each point he made, he looked and acted the emotion, and it kept it interesting for the audience.  Humor was used throughout.  You knew he was acting, yet at the same time he was sincere.  In this case, the audience was not emotionally biased.  But for example, if you’re announcing layoffs, you know they’ll be upset.  So think about how to acknowledge their emotions to show you respect their feelings, then plan how you will, toward the middle and the end of the talk, lift their spirits as much as possible.  The emotional engagement with the audience is the most important part of the plan – the content must fit into this emotional management plan.

PowerPoint filled with facts hurts you.
Most PowerPoint presentations have WAY too much information, and sap the emotional involvement out of the audience.  Use it as minimally as possible, and never as a teleprompter.  Try to find visual emotional messages for your PowerPoint.   If you don’t need the screen on for a few moments, turn the screen off (hit the B key).

Make it interactive – get them talking
Early on, Mr. Smith got the audience talking, asking about their business.  In a few cases, they related to telecom, and he seized on a few audience members to tease over the course of the talk, adding spice and a tiny bit of tension.  He dubbed one member, DC Cullinane, CEO of ThinkingVOICE Networks, “Mr. Voice over IP,” and acted irritated and resentful of this technological challenge to the old world of Ma Bell.  In fact, SBC is embracing this new technology.  If your audience is shy, try to find a way to mention some of them by name during the talk.  Another alternative for shy audiences is to collect questions and concerns in writing in advance, then read them and answer them on the spot.  It’s much better for them to feel that you are talking with them, than at them.

Stories are powerful.
Chuck Smith used storytelling heavily, and tied in references to the past, present and future.  As he did so, he walked into the audience, and used the full range of his voice, strong facial expressions and gestures.  Everybody loves stories.  Funny, touching or suspenseful are among the best.  Keep them short and to the point, and make sure you drive home why they are relevant.

Know your audience’s interests, and address them.
I’ve personally seen top CEOs deliver canned addresses to the wrong audience.  What a disaster.  Forget about what’s on your mind.  Understand what’s on the audiences mind, and tackle it.  In the case of the Alliance presentation, full of CEOs, Chuck Smith keyed in on what the audience was there for.  He mixed in enough about SBC and current technology in telecom to keep those who came to see him because of his industry, but always tied it back to points about being a CEO of any business and any size.

Let your personality shine though.  Relax.
The biggest enemy of a presenter is nervousness and stiffness.  If your audience feels like you’re their friend, and you’re getting the same exchange that a friend would get, you’re doing well.  After Mr. Smith presented, we all felt like we knew him.

Stay on point.  Don’t digress.
Every second that passes is a chance for your audience to get bored.  Don’t ever let the talk stall, or dwell on one issue too long.  Think through your stories and points, and structure them in a way that will be understandable, without any side stories or mid-thought explanations.  Sound bites are good (otherwise known as short, powerful sentences).  Run-ons, and long, multi-part compound sentences are not.

Stay in control of the agenda.
You’re the boss when you’re speaking.  While you should engage the audience, don’t let any one person engage you in a personal debate, or drag you off point.  At times, you may need to say out loud that you’ll talk with them after the speech is over.

If you can, walk into your audience.
Standing behind the podium is almost always bad.  If you change the distance between you and the audience, you immediately become more personal and intimate.  Try to arrange the venue to allow this, then move into and back out of your audience.

Train your voice, train your arms.
Just like you learn a computer program, or study how to play an instrument, you must think about and analyze your performance.  How your voice sounds and how you use it is critical, and can be adjusted.  The movement of your arms and body is important, and you can train your self to look better, and more engaged.

This was not Chuck Smith’s first time speaking.  He’s done it hundreds – or perhaps thousands of times.  If you want to improve, you need to practice.  Practice some by yourself, but more importantly, in front of groups.  As a CEO, you’ve got your own staff and departments to practice in front of.  And of course, you can hire consultants that can move you forward quite a bit.  I know an Alliance member that took an acting class for just this reason.  And there are books, programs, and coaches that can help as well.  In the Alliance, Ken Taylor of Taylor Consulting Group offers top level executive presentation training.

Two brains.
All the while that you are speaking, you brain needs to be doing two things.  First, it must be focused on what you are saying and doing – controlling your mouth and body.  But a second task, equally as important, is that it must be reading the audience – are they bored?  Am I losing them?  How did they react to that last bit?  And with that knowledge, you must make decisions on the fly.  “Better speed up,” or “Better ask some questions to wake them up.”

Some people in my group called Chuck Smith a “natural” speaker, and I’m sure he has some natural talent.  But that doesn’t mean that every CEO can’t purposely develop his or her presentation skills so that their audiences are more inspired and motivated as a result. 

Chuck Smith’s Top Ten Leadership Tips
1. Develop your vision.
2. Communicate your vision every chance you get -- clearly and consistently.
3. Communicate your values and make sure you live your values --walk the talk.
4. Set clear goals and manage to them.
5. Listen to your people.  They won’t steer you wrong.
6. Find a mentor, be a mentor.
7. Remain open to change – so you can take your company and yourself to the next level.
8. Push the envelope.
9. Keep your eye on the bottom line.
10. Be passionate about your work.

• CEOs must work hard to develop their skills at public speaking and “rallying the troops.”
• Engaging and affecting the emotions of the audience is the most powerful way to move an audience to action.  Don’t bury them in facts.
• Understand your audience and what they are interested in, then speak to them.
• Deliver your message quickly, powerfully and concisely.

Robert Sher is principal of CEO to CEO, specializing in assisting CEOs and business leaders as they navigate critical passages.  He is the author of The Feel of the Deal; How I Built a Business through Acquisitions.  He may be reached at

Company and Case Facts:

Company: SBC West, Inc.
Person: Chuck Smith, CEO
Years at Pacific Bell/SBC: 37
Head Count: 55,000
Product: Telecommunications