Finally it's happening. You're on stage. Under the lights. Staring out into the audience. A conference of hundreds. A sea of faces, each focused on you, hungry for your insights, primed for your wisdom. You smile and your gaze drops to the autocue. It's dead. The carefully crafted words locked away and, in the panic that washes over you, completely irretrievable from your mind. Unbidden your fists clench; your mouth becomes a desert, your tongue glues to its roof. You look out again at the audience. The sea of faces is still there, but it looks different somehow; where there was anticipation, now there is anxiety; your audience is feeding off your panic. A few now stand, their ipads capturing your disaster. You try to speak but junk croaks out of your mouth; you can hear your own voice speaking as though it didn't belong to you, and it sounds like it doesn't believe a word it is saying. You stare one last time at your audience before muttering, in disbelief, "excuse me, I'm sorry, I'm sorry" and you flee to the wings.
This is pretty much what happened to film director and producer Michael Bay at this month's Consumer Electronic Show (CES). My initial reaction - one of intense sympathy - was followed by wonder at the irony of so simple a technical glitch shorting out a global champion of technology. Yet when I thought a little longer, irony was replaced by inevitability; inevitability that the more we come to rely on technology for our performance, the less equipped we will be to perform when either the kit goes wrong, is not available or is inappropriate. There's an interesting tension here. Professor Joe Peppard, of Berlin's European School of Management and Technology has recently pointed out the need for greater digital literacy among non-techies in positions of leadership. Yet he balances this by emphasising that the Chief Information Officer has:
Historically .. been cast as a techie - more comfortable working on the technical aspects of IT systems than helping to devise and deliver overall business strategy. This is accurate and needs to change..., With the level of digital literacy in the boardroom still far too low, the CIO must step up and act like a legitimate business leader in order to make sure this happens.
And acting like a legitimate business leader requires compelling communication skills, even, indeed especially, when things go wrong as they did for Michael Bay.
Following learning and development commentators on Twitter and Linkedin one might form the impression that L&D is all headed one way, and that's "social." Not social in the sense of actually encountering other people in their living, 3D, scratch n'sniff reality, but social as in on-line. Certainly, for the delivery of technical training e-learning can be a realistic and desirable solution. But nothing Bay might have done on-line could have prepared him for speaking in public as effectively as practice and experience would have done. Of course, one reason people shy away from practice is their very fear of public speaking - famously it is alleged that almost a quarter of the US population fears it more than death itself.
Yet businesses cannot afford to side step the importance of this aspect of performance. The English school system compares poorly with many foreign counterparts when it comes to preparing young people for public speaking. The recent decision to remove speaking and listening as a graded element of the English GCSE will only accelerate this deficit. Here's the bottom line: businesses that want new hires to be articulate, confident and persuasive about their services and products will have to pick up the reins.
And lest we imagine the digital world is set to render face-to-face business communication a thing of the past, here is a couple of things to reflect on:
First: in 2012, in partnership with Capita, Legal & General, Family Investments and others, Magnified Learning asked 2,300 14-16 year-olds across the UK how they would most like to access financial advice. 4% said internet; 4% said phones; 2% said apps; 1% said text and 1% said email. 71% of these digital natives said they would want to access their advice face-to-face (the remainder said they didn't want any advice.)
Second: The Greater London Authority's report on the case for a new airport for London (2011) stated:
It is worth noting that advances in non face-to-face forms of communication through information and communications technology do not appear to have diminished the demand for travel in these (the knowledge) sectors, many of which involve the development of personal business relations.
No wonder then, that for all the noise about "social", 79% of L&D professionals responding to Reed's annual Learning Trends Index (2013) had neither launched nor piloted any form of mobile learning initiative in the preceding 6 months.
Providing regular opportunities for employees to address unfamiliar and not totally critical audiences is a potent way to develop what are business-critical communication skills. This is true whether they are new hires, established staff, or in some cases, members of the board. Such an approach is particularly effective when done as part of a structured programme of observation and coaching, which is focused on reflection, reapplication and improvement. An experiential programme of this nature takes you out of your comfort zones for sure. But nothing is half as scary as walking off that big time stage, tongue-gummed and jelly-legged, in the full knowledge that your meltdown is available on YouTube for your colleagues, bosses, clients and investors to view over and over whenever they choose. It really doesn't have to happen.