Randy and I kicked off 2012 by coaching MBA students in the art and science of public speaking at Ole Miss in early January. As I watched these amazing young people grow their skills in delivering compelling market-place “pitches”, informative business presentations and wrestling with real-world corporate ethical dilemmas, it became very clear that when students allowed their personalities to shine through in their pitches—the judges rated them higher regardless of the content in their pitch.
Let me tell you about what those who witnessed the magic at this year’s Speaker’s Edge have come to call “The Legend of Yankun”. Yankun Jia is an exchange student from China participating in the MBA program at Ole Miss this year. He was one of the hardest working students during the pre-competition coaching sessions. He practiced his speeches countless times, and incorporated coach feedback to the last detail. But it was not until the competition itself that Yankun really came alive!
Suddenly, what had been a better-than-average speech on an idea for Hologram technology in the workplace became a wild ride complete with acting out scenes from Star Wars, envisioning the possibility of getting a doctor’s diagnosis from another country’s top physician, to examining an aircraft carrier engine while sitting comfortably in your Mississippi office. And all through the speech he improvised—making references to other competitor’s presentations. Imagine how well you would do improvising in Chinese in front of 150 people. This seven minute speech drew spontaneous applause from the crowd multiple times, along with hearty laughter and in some cases a few tears. As Yankun pulled his avid crowd of listeners through the home stretch, one judge whispered, “Well, I guess that makes it easy.” Yep, Yankun came out on top – beating 72 other students for the win in the market-place pitch category of the competition. Some said his speech lacked detailed content. But it’s the delivery that won the day.
In our book Evolutionaries: Transformational Leadership we say that “whether you call it authenticity, honesty, being straight-forward, or just a “straight-shooter” – motive led communication is at the heart of transformative change.” When people communicate from the heart, and put the full weight of their passion and personality behind what they say, they are simply more likely to persuade others. A recent study conducted by Sandy Pentland of MIT Human Dynamics Lab, published in the Harvard Business Review January 2010 shows that the more successful people in business are also more energetic communicators. The study used established science to predict which executives would win a business competition/market pitch solely on the basis of the social signals they send. And they were right 87% of the time! Devices that recorded data on participant social signals—tone of voice, gesticulation, proximity to others, and more predicted each winner without reading or hearing the actual pitches. We think we are completely rational when we judge a presentation, but the study confirms the power of style and presentation: we pick different winners if we just read the speeches.
In other words, maybe if we had just had the judges at Speaker’s Edge read the written pitches, Yankun wouldn’t have had a chance.
This may confirm something that you have always known in your gut: It’s not what you say, it’s how you say it.
In the Ole Miss Speaker’s Edge program we are not just trying to develop great business leaders, we are working to grow excellent communicators. We think most business schools are failing in this arena. Speaker’s Edge is in its 9th year now, we feel confident in saying this program is Evolutionary!
The success of the program shows up in the results. Alumni repeatedly call out this program as “the most important part of their MBA experience” and students are identifying the program as a “reason to choose Ole Miss” in their applications. Employers are offering feedback that the graduates are more poised and confident. And, the tournament is widely seen as a first chance to recruit for companies like FedEx, Viking, and Raytheon. The program will also be starting its 2nd year at the University of Alabama (roll tide) MBA program this summer.
We’ll let you know when Yankun’s video is up for viewing: it is a must see experience!