Two factors will determine whether you are destined for career stardom—maybe very early stardom—or mediocrity and dusty oblivion. The first is your talent at whatever you do. The second is your ability to connect with others, especially when giving presentations. Sure, "strong communication skills" is a hackneyed phrase that every 25-year-old puts on his or her résumé, and we all know a couple of boring nerds who have gotten rich without those skills.
But poor communication skills hide your talents and can kill your career. I'm not talking about the mechanical (and sometimes comically theatrical) stuff that people focus on during presentations, like gestures and arm-waving. Much more important is the meat of your message. Whether you're speaking to subordinates, colleagues, or your boss, you need to leave them with something they can take out the door with them—and use.
In 20 years at General Electric, as the speechwriter for CEO Jack Welch, I saw many executives who weren't natural "presenters" but delivered presentations filled with insights, warnings, and acquired wisdom that left the audience, including the boss, with new ideas to think about or act upon. Those people went places.
Once, while putting together the agenda for GE's big annual meeting in Boca Raton, Fla., Welch said to me, "No more reports! We're sick of reports! The only pitches that are worth anything are when you tell people what they ought to do. Otherwise it's a waste." This doesn't mean you talk down to people or harangue them (unless it's matter of urgency or explosive opportunity). It means you leave them feeling they've just acquired nuggets of wisdom they can't wait to act on. Here's how:
Show how to solve a problem. At one of GE's Boca meetings, a midlevel manager ascended the podium, looking very serious, and said: "I'm with the plastics business. A couple of months ago we dropped a price increase on GM, our major customer. They resisted. We insisted. They fired us, and it took several months and CEO-level conversations to get the relationship back—and it's still not 100 percent back. My pitch this morning is on how we screwed up, how we got it back, and how you can avoid the mistakes we made." Audience: riveted.
Avoid buzzwords and jargon. Does your product line face "head wind"? Or enjoy "tail wind"? Fine. Say that once, not 20 times. Do you put things in "buckets"—or worse, "bucketize" them? Do you work "24/7," "think outside the box," and "leverage" things in the interest of "synergy"? Are you getting more "granular" as you "drill down" to your point? Do you even have a point?
These phrases should be banned by corporate writ, but since that's not going to happen, ban them from your own lexicon. Using buzzwords brands you as a lightweight, with the intellectual gravitas of Styrofoam. They might make you feel like you fit in, but the leadership at good companies weeds out charlatans who can't come up with an original way of describing their business or their strategy. Use your own words and thoughts, and if you can't think of snappy phrases, just speak in plain English.
Don't let PowerPoint wreck your presentation. Do you have the presence to look your colleagues in the face and "feed" them—tell them something powerful and useful? Or do you need a PowerPoint display over your shoulder, distracting your listeners and helping you remember what you're supposed to say?
PowerPoint should be a useful tool of communication. Instead, it's become the centerpiece, turning people who might have a real message into mere projector operators doing voiceovers, while nightmarish word charts steal the show (or put everybody to sleep). At GE, Welch and his top colleagues would often ridicule weak PowerPoint presentations—sometimes while they were still going on. During one sleepfest, Welch bellowed from the back of the room, "Nice chart, Harry. How long did it take you to type that one up? What's it say? We can't read it back here." (No career progress for Harry that day.)
Never give someone else's presentation. People are busy, things come up, and it's a common request: The boss has to meet with a client on short notice. He asks you to give a presentation on his behalf. All the slides are ready to go—it should be no big deal. But at GE, when this happened, you may as well have just scheduled a train wreck. Typical scenario: The fill-in is only marginally familiar with the charts and stumbles through them. Somebody asks him to explain a technical term on one of them. He doesn't know and has to ask someone in the audience for help. Before long, the buzz is definitive: He "cratered"—and now has to dig himself out of a reputational hole.
Solution: If somebody asks you to fill in for him, and you can't get out of it, agree in general terms—but then talk about something you're familiar with and really care about. That'll knock 'em dead.
Bill Lane was Jack Welch's speechwriter and communications manager at GE for 20 years and is the author of Jacked up: the Inside Story of How Jack Welch Talked GE Into Becoming the World's Greatest Company.