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On the Spot

April 2014

By Nancy Mann Jackson

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When campus emergencies and startling events take senior leaders by surprise, the chief business officer is often tapped to make public comment about finances and much more. Learning effective media skills can make the limelight more of a comfort zone.

In January 2013, a shooter opened fire on the North Harris campus of the Lone Star College (LSC) System near Houston, injuring three people. Two months later, a stabbing on the LSC-CyFair campus further endangered the college’s security, with the campus on lockdown and 14 people wounded. While inquiries about these incidents were actually fielded by the college’s communications office, business officers soon found themselves answering many questions about related issues. 

“Our budget meetings have been focused on safety and security for several years, with many upgrades and improvements included in our recently completed bond construction program,” says Cynthia Gilliam, Lone Star’s vice chancellor for administration and finance and CFO. “But, even though the responses by the LSC, Harris County, and other nearby law enforcement agencies were largely successful in minimizing the possible outcomes of these events, the LSC team immediately took action to include enhancements that may be needed to further strengthen the infrastructure already in place. And, of course, we had to consider how that would impact the budget.  

“Questions or comments about the two incidents were not only welcome, but our immediate responses became an effective method of ensuring that the community knew that safety and security measures had been and will continue to be a priority. We included significant funds in our current budget to hire additional security and police officers to provide students, employees, and visitors further affirmation of LSC’s commitment to their safety.”

Gilliam says a strong mentor early in her career and, later on, LSC’s nationally recognized chancellor, were instrumental in her development of effective presentation and media skills. These were practices that served her well following these recent campus crises, as well as in other instances when her office or the college has been literally or figuratively under fire.

In addition to issues involving campus safety, chief business officers have been in the spotlight during recent years because of a variety of developments, such as athletics scandals, the recession’s financial challenges, rising college costs, and low graduation rates. Consequently, CBOs are often called upon to speak on these issues—and sometimes to defend the institution or add context to particular events, issues, and circumstances.

No longer do CBOs play a background role, conducting their accounting, financial reporting, and fiduciary responsibilities behind the scenes. In addition to communicating about new challenges that affect an institution’s bottom line, other more-traditional communication roles continue to call for business officers to present to or speak publicly with those involved in activities such as student newspapers, state and local governments, boards of trustees, alumni, and so forth. 

“Business officers have always been called upon to speak and make presentations about their work,” says Joanne Yestramski, vice chancellor of finance and operations at the University of Massachusetts (UMass), Lowell. “But now, it’s more important than ever that business officers understand how to negotiate and to influence situations. Having good media skills will help.” Given this higher profile, CBOs and other campus officials could use a healthy dose of coaching and training to improve speech and media skills. 

Expanded Expectations 

Yestramski is often asked to serve as a guest lecturer or to make presentations to various industry groups, including higher education or financial organizations. But much of her job as CBO involves “basically trying to persuade our governing bodies that things are under control financially or convincing them to approve new policies,” Yestramski says. “And good presentation skills are necessary for achieving that art of persuasion.” 

In an effort to improve her job performance, Yestramski sought professional presentation and media coaching several years ago, while working at Bentley University, Waltham, Massachusetts, in a similar capacity to her role at UMass Lowell. “In every presentation since, I have used those skills,” she says. 

Most business officers realize the grave importance of the information they must communicate—getting a budget approved affects the livelihoods of faculty and staff, as well as the education students receive, for instance. And the way that information is presented will determine responses and, ultimately, outcomes. “People can’t see your intellect, your character, or your soul,” says Laurie Schloff, senior coaching partner at the Speech Improvement Co. Inc. in Boston. “They judge you by what you say, how you sound, and the way you look.” 

Because most people do not naturally speak in an engaging, attention-grabbing manner, there’s often room for improvement. And because today’s business officers have so many opportunities to speak before influential audiences, many are more interested in making sure they can do it well. “A lot of my clients don’t want to be average anymore,” Schloff says. “They want to adapt to new media and be able to speak to all constituents. And for business officers, it’s important to remember that your messages relate to education itself. The bottom line matters, but you really want to blend that with the education message of your institution.” 

Scenarios and Surprises

When UMass’s Yestramski went to her first media and presentation training session, she was wearing a floral dress. The trainer’s first order of business was to film Yestramski so she could see herself as the camera saw her—and the image wasn’t what Yestramski was hoping for. “The trainer said, ‘You need to get rid of that dress, and you probably need to get a new hairdresser,’” Yestramski laughs. “She was right, but friends don’t tell you those things.” 

At Schloff’s suggestion, Yestramski hired a wardrobe specialist to determine her best colors and clothing styles. “She came to my house and went through my closet, and when she finished, I had hardly any clothes left,” Yestramski says. “But it’s true—it is important what you wear; it communicates a certain image and message.”

Both men and women can benefit from professional advice about fit, style, and quality of clothing. And, while Yestramski hired a consultant, many department and specialty stores now offer complimentary personal shopping services.

But Yestramski’s training went well beyond her appearance and included the following elements:

Visuals that invite inquiry. Schloff asked her to develop and deliver a sample PowerPoint presentation, which the trainer critiqued in terms of both delivery and content of the slides. “We talked about how much information to include on each slide and taking appropriate breaks between topics,” Yestramski says. 

One of the most important things Schloff teachers her clients is “learning how to be the best visual in the room, rather than relying on the visual aid,” she says. One of her tricks is to “always say more than you show.” She recommends that speakers never include all their points on their slides or handouts. 

Components of self-confidence. Schloff also examined how Yestramski used hand and upper body gestures to show animation and suggested other positive body language as part of developing skills of persuasion. Yestramski learned that an important part of persuasion comes from feeling confident, something she gains, she says, as she develops familiarity with her message through extensive preparation and rehearsing.

For example, as a relatively new CFO of the University of Maine System, Yestramski applied these techniques in making a major presentation on capital planning and debt management to the board of trustees, which approved the request without a single question. When she questioned the chancellor about the lack of discussion, he simply said, “When a presentation is as clear and thorough as this one, there is no need for questions.”

Verbal revisions. Another easy lesson that makes a big difference for Schloff’s trainees is to replace too-frequent “vocalized pauses,” such as “Ah” or “Um,” with true pauses. “People have to learn to pause for real, for a count of about two beats,” Schloff says. “For some people, it’s very difficult to simply be silent and take a breath.” 

Other common problems Schloff sees are speaking in a “mono-pattern,” without varying speech rhythms, and talking too slowly, which “can be exhausting to listen to,” she says. Listeners can typically absorb 650 to 700 words per minute (usually many more than even the fastest speaker is able to produce) so, in order to hold interest, the most effective presenters learn to speak at a pace somewhat faster than the average rate. 

While such lessons may seem simple, it can be difficult to grasp their importance without professional training and practice. “If business officers can be as fortunate as I was to get this kind of training early on, it will help them succeed and give them confidence,” Yestramski says. “You can pick up these skills without formal training, but most people are not self-aware enough to observe their own weaknesses, and it’s hard for colleagues and friends to give brutally honest feedback.” 

Self-Taught Skills 

If professional presentation training isn’t an option, business officers can still sharpen their skills. Lone Star College’s Gilliam says she was prepared, in part, for the high-profile presentations she makes today by having a strong mentor early in her career. 

“The best thing you can do for yourself is to identify a mentor who has ‘been there and done that,’ and knows where the cultural and political land mines are,” she says. 

For example, her mentor helped her with financial presentations to various stakeholders by showing her how items should be presented, discussing the types of information different audiences would want to hear, and suggesting ways to organize presentation slides. 

To locate a colleague who can provide similar guidance, business officers should “look for people at their own institutions and at other institutions who seem to be the most effective when speaking in front of groups,” says Andy Burness, founder of Washington, D.C.–based Burness Communications, a consulting firm focused on working with nonprofits and educational institutions. “Ask them how they do it, and listen very carefully.” 

Opt Into On-Campus Opportunities

In addition to seeking a personal mentor, Gilliam recommends taking advantage of any development opportunities offered by the college or university that may help build the knowledge, confidence, and poise needed for outstanding briefings, presentations, and media interactions. 

For instance, the Lone Star College System offers a competitive Leadership College program, which is “designed to grow our own leaders,” Gilliam says. Each year, from those who apply, a dedicated committee and the vice chancellor select 30 to 35 staff members for the academy. Once a month, members participate in a full day of leadership development activities, including workshops on how to make an effective presentation or briefing, and what to include in communicating via the media with various audiences.

Three times each year, Lone Star also offers a full day of optional staff development at the system office, and those who attend are better prepared to communicate about the college with their departments’ specific audiences. Those events, open to all employees, are “designed to tell you everything Lone Star is, does, and aspires to be,” Gilliam says. “After listening to panels of vice chancellors and presidents, employees are better prepared to answer questions that come up about the college in their various presentations and other communication.” 

In some cases, formal presentation and media skills training may be available on campus rather than having to access outside consultants. For instance, at Chicago’s DePaul University, Cynthia Lawson, the university’s vice president for public relations and communications, provides one-on-one media skills and presentation workshops for faculty, staff, and even student government leaders, says Ron Culp, instructor and professional director of DePaul’s Public Relations and Advertising (MA) program. 

During these hands-on, three-hour training sessions, Lawson films the employees during mock media interviews. “She plays the reporter and is very aggressive,” Culp says. “Many of our senior people have been through the program, and it makes a big difference when they are in a media situation.”

Culp believes the key to DePaul’s success with media skills training is the one-on-one aspect. “The problem with many corporate training programs is that in group events, some people feel uncomfortable,” he says. “It takes time to learn communication skills, because everyone learns at a different level, and everyone has a different response to the training. For example, some people may be embarrassed when learning media skills in front of their peers.” 

Crafting Effective Messages

Whether business officers are professionally trained in public speaking or simply rely on on-the-job training, there is no substitute for taking time to hone the proper message to meet the needs of the target audience. When faced with difficult situations, even highly trained CBOs will be effective only if they are communicating the right messages. 

In today’s almost-constant news cycle, university officials no longer have the luxury of time to craft the ideal messages in response to unexpected events. For that reason, Culp recommends staying proactive, constantly examining issues, and planning for hypothetical circumstances. 

“When the news came out just two times per day, people always had a minimum of four to eight hours to prepare, when a response was needed,” Culp says. “Now, people have to do a more thorough job of anticipating issues and preparing for them. You have to anticipate, strategize, and prepare what you will do and say if something happens.” 

To be prepared for any eventuality, Culp recommends convening “issues brainstorms” among business office staff. In such confidential meetings, he advises asking attendees what they are hearing both inside and outside the institution that could affect the business office. When business officers meet regularly with college communications staff, they are likely to keep the communications office more informed about what’s going on in various areas of their work—which has become more important in today’s news environment. 

“The new paradigm [of constant news] has created a need for individuals across the organization to be more open and to share with communications representatives,” Culp says. “I want to know everything that’s going on within the organization so I can determine whether or not we are at risk for a communications crisis.” 

For instance, after DePaul and Chicago’s Metropolitan Pier and Exposition Authority recently announced that they would partner to build a downtown arena that will double as a university basketball arena and a convention hall, local media and taxpayers had plenty of questions—and misconceptions. The university’s communications office fielded a number of consecutive media calls after 6 p.m. on the day of the announcement. 

“Ten years ago, we might have said, ‘I’ll call them back in the morning,’” Culp says. “But no more. Our communications officers knew the master plan, had the facts, and knew what to anticipate, so they had prepared statements and were ready to respond. They were able to answer the calls, explain the plans, and control the story.” 

Whether or not the institution is dealing with a potentially divisive issue, taking time to hone the message for any type of presentation—media or otherwise—is crucial. Lone Star’s Gilliam says business officers can craft more effective, complete messages if they work closely with academic officials. “You have to be part of a team that includes the academic side of the house,” she says. “If you don’t understand how your vision and mission are carried out, you can’t really include student success in your presentation. And, at LSC, student success is the only bottom line.” 

To develop the message, focus on expressing the pertinent points clearly, consistently, and concisely. “People don’t want to hear essays in response to a question,” Burness says. “Be able to express yourself relatively briefly and without using jargon.” 

It also can be effective to “humanize” the message, Burness says. For instance, rather than simply sharing facts, find ways to explain how those facts affect people—the institution’s students, faculty, parents, or the state’s taxpayers. “Whatever you’re talking about, there’s always a story behind it,” he says. “Use examples and share the story to make concepts real.” 

Once the message is refined, exhaustive practice can make it stick. “Before going into a meeting with any stakeholder, practice what you want to say,” Burness says. “Try it out with somebody, see how it goes over. If you try to wing it, it will either be a waste of time or a missed opportunity.” 

NANCY MANN JACKSON, Huntsville, Alabama, covers higher education business issues for Business Officer.

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