My Turn: What Will They Walk Away With?

Lessons from General Electric CEO Jack Welch.

By Bill Lane

I’ve been a speechwriter and speechmaker for 30 years and an admirer of Toastmasters for all that time. As CEO Jack Welch’s speechwriter at General Electric for 20 years, I often heard about Toastmasters International, and in particular, the club meetings attended by my fellow employees at GE. At company meetings, I used to hear my colleagues – from administrative assistants to executives – ask each other, “You coming tonight?” followed usually by, “Yeah, and I have to talk, but I’m not sure I’m ready.” Then the reassuring “Ah, you’ll be fine. You were great last time.” There was a camaraderie and mutual support among these Toastmasters members that I envied and a desire to improve oneself that I admired.

Jack Welch told me, on many occasions, that self-confidence was the absolutely indispensable attribute of a leader; you could not be an effective shaper and mover of people without it. I don’t believe you can be an effective public speaker without it, either, and I will tell you my (and Welch’s) theory as to a major source of this elusive intellectual and character attribute.

Years ago, Welch and I were sitting in his conference room, putting together a lineup of speakers for one of our major company meetings and routinely adding names of executives who had especially good runs in their businesses, so they could “tell their stories” (meaning strut and preen and brag). Then Jack stopped in mid-sentence, and after 20 or 30 seconds of scowling meditation directed at the conference room table, he said, loudly and decisively, “No, no, no! 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 just a waste.”

That changed everything in GE communications for decades. From then on, if you didn’t have a learning, a warning, an insight, a technique or something otherwise useful to share with your colleagues, you were not “on the program” to speak. We called this policy various things; one was “the bore test.”

If your speech would be boring or useless to anyone in the room – sorry, come back when you have something useful to share.

And we found that when you knew you had something worth sharing with your colleagues and friends, it produced self-confidence as you ascended the podium to speak. On more than one occasion Welch said to me, “Bill, I can’t wait to do this speech. It will blow them away. It’s so good and will be so useful to these people.”

This from a guy who long ago hated to speak because of a horrible stutter and shyness.

Is that how you feel when you walk up to the stage, or to the front of the room, to speak? Can’t wait to do it? Or are you just a little nervous and eager to “get it over with”?

Here’s a suggestion for your consideration: Next time you are scheduled to speak, go into a quiet room with a pad and pen (avoid the computer!) and ask yourself, What do I know, or what have I seen, in my life or on my job, that might be of use to these people – my friends and colleagues?

Maybe you’ll come up with something along these lines:

™ We learned a couple of painful lessons when we blew that deal with Acme because of quality flaws last year.
™ How did we get this lost customer back and what did we learn from doing it?
™ What can I share about our fall and rise that may be of use to my audience some day? If we did some dumb stuff, I’ll tell them about it. If we did a couple of smart things, I’ll modestly recount them if they contain lessons that the audience can use.

I hope you get the idea. Toastmasters are intelligent and observant; they understand how crucial the ability to stand up there and interest, or even mesmerize, an audience is to a career. And they all have useful observations that people will walk out of the room grateful for having heard.

So give such audiences the very best of your thinking; give them those “gifts” of learning that you possess; teach them, advise them, share with them. Help them. And if you do – if you forsake the self-serving reports, they will love you and the time they spend listening to you, and there will be a spring in your step as you walk to the front of that room.

Bill Lane is the author of Jacked Up: The Inside Story of How Jack Welch Talked GE Into Becoming the World’s Greatest Company (McGraw-Hill, 2008).