Speaking in Tongues

You must tell your strategy story to reach four different audiences.

Ask any CEO or speaking consultant what the most important aspect of public speaking is, and they will most likely say, “Know your audience.” But according to Thomas P. Mullen and Mala Narain of strategic leadership consulting firm Park Li Group, too much attention has been focused on who is sitting in the audience, and not enough attention is given to how those people engage with the speaker.

In their 2005 working paper, “I Understand All That … But What’s the Strategy?” the authors draw on survey data from executives and their audiences throughout the world to show that people have distinctly different ways of engaging with presentations about strategy. The authors say that each audience member will emphasize one of four primary focuses — data, structure, vision and the human element — and that effective speakers are those who integrate all four aspects into their presentations.

Listeners who are primarily data driven ask the essential question, “Is this strategy sound?” They will evaluate the analysis to see if it has been grounded in the appropriate facts and figures. Satisfying these listeners requires that the presenter take some time to do a thorough and detailed review of the data set on which the strategy is based.

Other listeners look first for structure: an organizing framework that will allow them to see how different types of data and pieces of the strategy interlink. Executives addressing this need frequently present their structure as an analogy or metaphor that captures the essence of the strategy in a single image, such as the “five pillars” of strategy or the four legs of the strategy. The “scorecard” has recently been a popular organizing framework for presenting an integrated strategy story.

Still other listeners are looking for a vision. They want an answer to the question, “Where do all these strategy discussions lead?” A successful leader will demonstrate a sense of the organization’s history and use that context to clearly articulate where the organization is headed and why.

Finally, some listeners focus on the human dimension of the strategy. They want to see how people are integral to the success of the strategy and where they fit in. Ultimately, these individuals are looking for a sense of community and a strategy that inspires them with core values that they share with the company.

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