Earlier today, Goldman Sachs CEO Lloyd Blankfein addressed the Council of Institutional Investors conference in Manhattan. The content of the address has received fairly intense scrutiny, both positive and not so positive (including this comparison to the recent Alex Rodriguez mea culpa, courtesy of Jessica Pressler over at New York Magazine).
From a communications perspective, there were definitely lessons to be learned.
This address will receive endless media attention not only for what Mr. Blankfein said in his speech, but for what occurred in the middle of it. In mid-sentence, two demonstrators’ from the organization Code Pink took the stage carrying a banner stating, “We Want Our $$$$$ Back!”
Not an easy situation at all, but one that was handled extremely well by both Mr. Blankfein and Code Pink, and actually may end playing to the benefit of both.
1. Keep your composure – no matter the situation – I have witnessed a number of business executives and elected officials handle protesters or hecklers poorly, so kudos to Mr. Blankfein for keeping his cool in a very trying circumstance. Giving a live, televised speech, that will be watched and commented on in harrowing enough, without the added pressure of a completely unanticipated interruption. Mr. Blankfein could have reacted in a number of different ways– either getting flustered, angry, hostile, nervous – but he didn’t.
He remained cool and interactive. He was conscious of his body language and his choice to pause for a few seconds prior to addressing the protesters was excellent. His next decision to address the protesters, acknowledge the message they were delivering, and negotiate them off of the stage was very well done.
2. Everything you do sends a message – everything – From another perspective, the protesters from Code Pink entered into what is also very difficult territory; A live, televised address, a crowd that is probably not thrilled with the decision to show up on stage, security, not to mention a speaker who is more than likely a much more experienced public speaker than the protesters.
The protesters were there to deliver a message, to deliver it to as many people as possible, and to have a lasting impact on the discussion. It worked. Not only did Mr. Blankfein acknowledge the message, he agreed to address it. Why? In my opinion, the woman who addressed him was very polite, addressing him as ”sir,” had a very polite exchange and when asked, agreed to leave the stage. What happened? The crowd broke out in applause, no heckling, message delivered, and for the time being, mission accomplished.
3. Conversations work – Mr. Blankfein was able to effectively negotiate the protesters off of the stage because he listened. Very important. He was aware of both audiences, knew what the protesters wanted, knew the larger audience wanted the presentation to continue, and he acted. All to often, when speaking, leaders know what they want to say but are not nearly as in tune with what the audience wants to hear, or is interested in. Public speaking is about the audience, not the speaker, a point often lost. Again, kudos to Lloyd Blankfein.
There was also another valuable communications lesson to learn from Mr. Blankfein’s address — The person who was delivering the speech this morning seemed to be a different person than the one who addressed the protesters in the middle of it! Why:
4. Please, please, please do NOT read a speech – all of the characteristics that made the interaction with the protestors so successful seemed to disappear before and after the interaction.
Watch the clip — Not much eye contact, very little movement, very visibly reading the speech word for word, speaking down into the podium (which makes it more difficult for your audience to understand) — in summary, not very engaging.
Unfortunately, this is fairly common when watching leaders speak publicly. People who are unbelievably conversational, warm, and engaging become robotic, stiff and flat when stepping on stage or up to a podium. More often than not, they are unaware of the change in demeanor or persona.
Communications training is invaluable in curing this; that being said practice, self-awareness and preparation are very helpful in making sure “you” show up when you speak.