Seven years ago, I had the great fortune of preparing a gifted public speaker for a series of national TV appearances we had lined up for him. The client spent each week of his life speaking before live audiences of 400 and 500 paying attendees. And he never failed to deliver, always captivating audiences before whisking out of the room to adoring applause.
When I suggested we do some training before an upcoming New York media tour, he pooh-poohed the idea. "Don't need it. I speak to live audiences all the time." I insisted, and flew to Indianapolis, video gear in hand. It didn't go well.
He tried to take command of the interview, but I pounded him with questions, redirecting his flow. He wilted, showed his frustration and finally snapped. "This isn't going to work if you are going to keep interrupting me."
President Obama faced a similar comeuppance Wednesday evening when control was wrenched from his grasp by an unfamiliar debate format and a moderator with a replacement referee approach to game calling. Without a teleprompter and adoring crowd, Obama was off balance from his opening anniversary wish to Michelle.
Things went downhill from there, in a wide-ranging debate format that provided none of the structure of a scripted affair. His missed each opening. Forgot his messaging, and failed to attack obvious openings.
It all provides good guidance to those of us who prepare others for the corporate show. Always remember:
1. The rules of engagement change by venue and forum. In a corporate setting, rarely does the audience speak out against a supposition. But at board meetings and sales calls, expect the unexpected and prepare accordingly.
2. Practice, we're talking about practice? Yep. It became apparent that Obama's supreme self-confidence fooled him into skipping out on practice. Here's a guy who was editor of the Harvard Law Review. With credentials like that, he's winged it before, and probably thought he could wing it Wednesday evening. Didn't work.
3. Get a quality coach. Really? John Kerry? That's kind of like naming Tony Romo your quarterback's coach. Bad idea.
4. Never underestimate your opponent. Hey, it's only Mitt Romney. The guy who didn't know why airplane windows are sealed. The foil that Jon Stewart lampoons every night. A Thurston Howell, III surrogate. Well guess what? Romney earned a joint MBA and law degree from Harvard. No doubt, Obama forgot that fact or would have studied a bit more.
5. They love me. What's to fear? A lot. Especially if it's the media. Even his apologists at MSNBC turned quickly on Obama after his listless performance. Yea. They love you as long as you are good for ratings.
6. Realize that messages need to change over time. Romney completely changed his message during the debate, delivering fact and specifics. Obama relied on the old, tired stump rhetoric that's gobbled up by supporters, but doesn't hold up in a debate format. For that, Obama, who prides himself on crafting his own speeches, must take the fall.
Indifference. Lack of preparation. Overconfidence. Poor coaching. Hey, if they can afflict one of greatest communicators of our generation, they can similarly victimize those in corporate America who rely on personal persuasion to lead and inspire.