Strategy & Operations » Leadership & Management » Public performance

ANNUAL CONFERENCE season has come again. In addition to the regular occasions throughout the year when I am called upon to address people in business, I also call together senior finance staff from around the group. They comprise subsidiary finance directors, controllers, corporate staff and so on. We are a diverse bunch, well in excess of 100 delegates, and many from outside the UK.

This important corporate event is designed not only to share information on the group, the subsidiaries and topical subjects, but also to network and speak on a variety of relevant issues. The speakers include finance and other professionals from across the group, as well as many from outside the group.

In recent years, my approach to the dreaded breakout discussions has changed. I now select groups myself and, significantly, hand-pick the victims whose task it is to report back the conclusions to the full conference floor. I choose people not for their reliability, entertainment value or experience, but for their potential, often knowing they may have little experience in presenting to large audiences. Some rise impressively to this challenge, while others do not, despite encouragement from a non-threatening audience of colleagues.

The worst example I can recall was a novice financial controller who was very keen and overly excited. He acted like a demented trade unionist on speed, shouting loudly and ranting at the audience, waving madly, forgetting the microphone, repeating and contradicting himself. I thought he was taking the piss, while he thought he had performed brilliantly.

So why do I do this? Because despite being authorities on their subject, well-educated and meticulously prepared, many accountants are not well-equipped to speak in public. As we progress through our careers, we are called upon to speak to large audiences. Public speaking is an essential skill that goes with the role of the finance director, and the expectations increase with seniority: presenting to clients, pitching for new work, reporting the results of projects, explaining audit results, running internal seminars and the like.

In industry and commerce we are required to present budgets, results, forecasts and proposals to senior internal people, including boards. We are often called upon to address staff groups, conferences and customers. As FDs our role requires us to be the public face of the business – to stakeholders, shareholders and the media.
There is no escaping any of this, so there is no place for nerves, shyness, lack of confidence, reluctance and poor delivery if you want to progress in your career.

In no way is this column intended to be a guide to public speaking, as I am not qualified to advise on the matter. I am merely passing on the observations of some of the more successful FDs, namely that you must be comfortable and confident in public situations in order to perform an FD’s duties successfully.

Consider where WPP would be now had Martin Sorrell been too shy to speak up when he was FD of Saatchi & Saatchi. Observe some of the famous FDs – both past and present – from the FTSE 100, who are confident public speakers, and plot their careers – Richard Lapthorne, Ian Dyson, Richard Pennycook, Archie Norman and Tidjane Thiam.

While an FD must be knowledgeable and armed with facts, books and tuition are no substitute for public speaking practice.

An established FD friend of mine, who is also an inspiring presenter and public speaker, and the son of a vicar, told me his father had once given him some sound advice, which he has followed since he was a schoolboy: “Son, never waste a speaking opportunity.”

Last month, the Secret FD attended a presentation on the All Party Parliamentary Group initiatives to address the skills gaps and employability prospects for young people, and spent an enjoyable week in the Maldives.