Coaching a Fortune 500 Executive’s Commencement Speech

In April and May, we were on retainer to prepare a CEO for an important milestone — giving his first commencement speech. It’s an honor for anyone to be asked to speak on such an important occasion and it’s out of the ordinary for a technology executive who more typically speaks about company products and strategies.

As we reviewed the executive’s on-camera performances at the start of the project — we could see that he was a passable speaker but he had some habits that kept him from being truly entertaining or inspiring. We set out to achieve three goals:  a) to identify with the audience of graduates; b) to feel ‘within himself’ as he communicated from the heart; c) to create a vision about the world in front of them and the opportunities and challenges they face.

Up first was to develop a script that would connect with his audience of several thousand graduates. As expected, this took several iterations over many weeks. It needed to be personal, which meant we needed to keep digging and prodding. Finally we landed on the themes of  embracing change, taking risks and learning from failure. It’s not easy for a successful executive to speak about their failures, especially when they’ve gone from being a self-made millionaire to being broke, all within 5 years, but as journalists we knew this would connect with his audience, and give him credibility.

Once the script was in good shape we started rehearsals. We first mirrored back what we were hearing — his speech was slow and fairly monotonous. This is always profound work, getting our clients to hear themselves the way we hear them. Once they can hear it, they’re motivated to find a better version of themselves. We also used a technique where we marked up his script, providing direction for emphasizing words, pauses, breaths. He found this very useful and became skilled at hitting his marks.

Finally, as we reached the last week, with graduation day in sight and with the core messaging in place, we took the script to some lighter places. Marilyn is a stand up comedian and she’s worked in Silicon Valley for decades, so that was a useful combination. Not all the jokes made it into the final draft but it helped the executive find his own path to some lighter moments.

As the executive spent time with the script in the final days before delivering the speech, he made it his own. This really helped him gear up for the big day. He had the words, he had the techniques, and he now he’d found the heart of what he wanted to communicate: that success and failure go together, that failure shouldn’t stop you from trying, that taking risks will lead to both success and failure and that we all learn from both.

The audience loved him and he soared in his presentation.  We were thrilled to have helped shape it.

Marilyn Pittman and Marianne Wilman were the coaches on this project

Photo credit: FatimehNadimi

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In April and May, we were on retainer to prepare a CEO for an important milestone — giving his first commencement speech. It’s an honor for anyone to be asked to speak on such an important occasion and it’s out of the ordinary for a technology executive who more typically speaks about company products and strategies.

As we reviewed the executive’s on-camera performances at the start of the project — we could see that he was a passable speaker but he had some habits that kept him from being truly entertaining or inspiring. We set out to achieve three goals:  a) to identify with the audience of graduates; b) to feel ‘within himself’ as he communicated from the heart; c) to create a vision about the world in front of them and the opportunities and challenges they face.

Up first was to develop a script that would connect with his audience of several thousand graduates. As expected, this took several iterations over many weeks. It needed to be personal, which meant we needed to keep digging and prodding. Finally we landed on the themes of  embracing change, taking risks and learning from failure. It’s not easy for a successful executive to speak about their failures, especially when they’ve gone from being a self-made millionaire to being broke, all within 5 years, but as journalists we knew this would connect with his audience, and give him credibility.

Once the script was in good shape we started rehearsals. We first mirrored back what we were hearing — his speech was slow and fairly monotonous. This is always profound work, getting our clients to hear themselves the way we hear them. Once they can hear it, they’re motivated to find a better version of themselves. We also used a technique where we marked up his script, providing direction for emphasizing words, pauses, breaths. He found this very useful and became skilled at hitting his marks.

Finally, as we reached the last week, with graduation day in sight and with the core messaging in place, we took the script to some lighter places. Marilyn is a stand up comedian and she’s worked in Silicon Valley for decades, so that was a useful combination. Not all the jokes made it into the final draft but it helped the executive find his own path to some lighter moments.

As the executive spent time with the script in the final days before delivering the speech, he made it his own. This really helped him gear up for the big day. He had the words, he had the techniques, and he now he’d found the heart of what he wanted to communicate: that success and failure go together, that failure shouldn’t stop you from trying, that taking risks will lead to both success and failure and that we all learn from both.

The audience loved him and he soared in his presentation.  We were thrilled to have helped shape it.

Marilyn Pittman and Marianne Wilman were the coaches on this project

Photo credit: FatimehNadimi

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Client Story: Am I Ready to Start My Business?

I’ve been working with a client for the last 2 months, meeting weekly. He’s very creative, thinks strategically and hired me because he’s been excited about starting a business for a while. But, despite his passion, he hasn’t been moving forward in concrete ways. He’s currently working as a creative consultant, but feeling under-utilized. Ultimately, he wants to turn his hobby, which he spends one day a week pursuing, into his full-time occupation.

What’s been so rewarding is how he has responded to exercises and visualizations around values identification, his personal vision statement, his inner wisdom and naming the Saboteur voices that can hold him back. There have been many moments of breakthrough and deep emotion as he sees himself more fully. From this place he makes light work of moving forward with his action steps each week.

This client is now creating a community for himself, based on his new business idea. This is happening easily, he’s being welcomed warmly and his venture is being taken seriously. Smartly, my client isn’t jumping into anything — he’s taking his time to review what he sees as three options for what his new business and his new life may look like. There’s also an ending at his current workplace to work through; leaving the financial security feels risky and saying goodbye to the daily friendships is not easy.

We’re now heading into business coaching which will shape his vision further and make it more real — establishing pricing structures, creating plans and timelines, identifying his ideal clients and doing inventory around his assets. So, is my client ready to start his own business? Well, for now let’s say he’s firmly embracing the Inception phase.

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I’ve been working with a client for the last 2 months, meeting weekly. He’s very creative, thinks strategically and hired me because he’s been excited about starting a business for a while. But, despite his passion, he hasn’t been moving forward in concrete ways. He’s currently working as a creative consultant, but feeling under-utilized. Ultimately, he wants to turn his hobby, which he spends one day a week pursuing, into his full-time occupation.

What’s been so rewarding is how he has responded to exercises and visualizations around values identification, his personal vision statement, his inner wisdom and naming the Saboteur voices that can hold him back. There have been many moments of breakthrough and deep emotion as he sees himself more fully. From this place he makes light work of moving forward with his action steps each week.

This client is now creating a community for himself, based on his new business idea. This is happening easily, he’s being welcomed warmly and his venture is being taken seriously. Smartly, my client isn’t jumping into anything — he’s taking his time to review what he sees as three options for what his new business and his new life may look like. There’s also an ending at his current workplace to work through; leaving the financial security feels risky and saying goodbye to the daily friendships is not easy.

We’re now heading into business coaching which will shape his vision further and make it more real — establishing pricing structures, creating plans and timelines, identifying his ideal clients and doing inventory around his assets. So, is my client ready to start his own business? Well, for now let’s say he’s firmly embracing the Inception phase.

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