Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Lessons from Lee

[Editor's note: This was originally posted on]
For Today's CEOs, Lessons from Master Speaker Lee Iacocca

By Jeff Porro

The Chrysler chief's speechwriting team shares how today's execs can inspire employees and customers alive with candor and a great narrative.

Lee Iacocca, former head of Chrysler, was certainly the first and arguably the biggest CEO “rock star.”

Yes, Bill Gates and Steve Jobs have also gained fame far beyond the business world. But no other corporate leader has scored the pop culture quad-fecta of being a “Jeopardy!” category, guest starring on “Miami Vice,” being the answer to a clue in The New York Times crossword puzzle, and getting assassinated in “The Watchmen” movie. (OK. It was a lookalike actor playing Iacocca).

Iacocca’s autobiography was a world best-seller. And, in 1988, there was also a strong “draft Iacocca for president” movement.

Iacocca’s business success—saving Chrysler and reinvigorating the American automobile industry in the 1980s—has also become a staple of B-school “case studies.” And most analysts agree a key ingredient—what Iacocca himself called “my most important management tool” —was the spoken word. “I used that tool every day,” Iacocca wrote.

To better understand how he used words, I spoke with two men who wrote speeches and presentations for the former Chrysler head: Mike Morrison and Alex Tsigdinos. Morrison, Chrysler’s vice president of corporate communications from 1984 to 1999, wrote more than 600 of Iacocca’s speeches. Tsigdinos, who worked for Morrison, was part of Iacocca’s and Chrysler’s small speech-writing team during his last few years at the company.

Learning from Lee

Iacocca’s speaking style and his belief in the value of speeches came from his background in sales.

“In the auto industry, sales means talking to dealers,” Morrison says. “At that time, dealers were all independent business people, protected by state franchise laws. You couldn’t force them to do anything. You had to sell to salesmen, sometimes getting them to do things they didn’t want to do.”

Iacocca himself put it this way: “In every speech I give, the object is to motivate. You can deliver information in a letter or tack it on a bulletin board.”

Unfortunately, too many of today’s executives forget the motivation aspect. Most prefer to treat a speech as a spoken white paper or a status report to stockholders rather than as an opportunity to rally the troops. The result is a lot of very boring CEO speeches.

Iacocca, on the other hand, planned out each speech very concisely and with great focus, Tsigdinos says, to be sure he would move his audiences to action.

“He wanted to know what we wanted to accomplish with each particular audience: the point he wanted to make, the behavior he wanted to influence, the actions he wanted them to take,” Tsigdinos explains.

Tsigdinos notes that Iacocca understood how overwhelmingly important it was to persuade and put a huge amount of effort into each speech. “He always spoke from a script, never spoke off the cuff,” Morrison says.

Iacocca was always very nervous before a speech. However, because he put in the hours to rehearse and revise each speech, his delivery was so smooth, natural and relaxed, it could sound ad-libbed.

“I think some executives think all they need to do is review a draft just before they give it, and they can waltz in there and win an audience over,” Tsigdinos says. “Iacocca knew it wasn’t that easy.”

Check out YouTube for proof that too many executives don’t put in the time. You’ll find lots of examples of CEOs who read their speeches instead of delivering them.

As for the substance of the speeches, Morrison sums it up simply: “A good speech is a story.” Iacocca, he says, knew that everything having to do with communication was a story. “Iacocca was a great at telling stories with a beginning, a strong middle, and an end.”

For too many of today’s CEOs, a speech is what Morrison called “just a matter of reciting data, of listing serial events.” That’s a bad mistake that at first bores and then, ultimately, loses an audience.

Iacocca was so devoted to making each speech into a story that he asked Morrison not to add in applause lines. “He didn’t want anything to break up the flow of a story,” Morrison said, “No cute phrases, not a lot of short anecdotes. He would set up the story, tell it, draw his conclusion and leave.”

And he stayed far away from corporate-speak. Says Tsigdinos: “Simple but effective. That’s what we strove for. No convoluted language. He was great at making direct statements that people could remember.”

Taking the initiative 

Iacocca excelled at taking the initiative and getting out front on issues. In 1987, it was discovered that Chrysler had tested a small number of new cars with the odometers disconnected before they were sold.

The story rocketed around the country, and there were reports district attorneys were considering legal action. When Iacocca learned what had happened, he had Morrison draft a speech saying very frankly that Chrysler had made a mistake and would make it right.

When Morrison sent the draft to Chrysler lawyers for clearance, they were furious—fearing that the speech could be an admission of guilt and lead to lawsuits. Iacocca was just as furious that the lawyers tried to stop him.

So when he went before the cameras, he said that Chrysler had done two things that made customers question their faith in the company. In Iacocca’s soon-to-be-famous words: “The first was dumb. … The second reached beyond dumb and went all the way to stupid.”

“He was on every one of the nightly news shows,” Morrison remembers. “They lionized him, and he turned the whole thing into a huge PR victory.”

There’s an obvious contrast to the recent behavior of some CEOs facing crises, most notably BP’s.

“The BP guys should have understood they had a disaster on their hands. They should have worked with their communication experts, not their lawyers,” Morrison says.

As today’s CEOs work to keep their companies growing out of the economic doldrums, they would be wise to learn these lessons from Lee:
  • Use your speeches to motivate, not just deliver information.
  • Put in whatever time it takes to master your speech and make it sound natural.
  • Get out front, be frank, and admit your mistakes.
  • And above all, tell a story.
Speechwriter Jeff Porro ( helps executives prepare effective speeches and presentations. He also discovered and researched the true story of a Jim Crow-era African-American college debate team and helped turn it into the 2007 feature film “The Great Debaters.”

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