IT leaders must be the key messengers

Dickens, Melville and Aesop were no slouches when it came to telling stories. Unfortunately, many professionals in the technology arena aren't as skilled.

We all spend a fair amount of time at conferences and seminars. We all have the T-shirts, heavily logoed black canvas bags and booth giveaways to prove that we've been on the quest for truth. Are the words we're hearing worth the effort we expend to listen to them?

A poll of 30 IT leaders -- ranging from übergeeks in the innovation and performance-obsessed high-tech sector, to battle-scarred, politically-savvy veterans in the manufacturing sector, to security/privacy and customer service players in financial services -- found a high level of concern about the state of messages and messaging in our industry today. Three questions immediately come to mind: Who is speaking for IT? Why are personally delivered good words so rare in our business? And why should we care?

Truth number one: The IT message is coming out of the wrong mouths. If you were to measure the total word count being generated about technology on the planet today, you would probably find that vendors and analysts are by far the highest-volume producers of the raw materials of oratory. The people who should really be talking, the users, are in most cases mute and on the wrong side of the microphone. Empirical evidence indicates that most vendors don't communicate to educate but to sell.

A classic example of inappropriate vendor obsession with selling versus teaching was Tom Siebel's disastrous speech before about 400 IT leaders at last year's annual conference of the Society of Information Management in San Diego. Most of the attendees expressed anger at the sales content of the message from the CEO of Siebel Systems. It was the first time I've seen so many CIOs agree on anything.

Analysts are smart people who, due to their business models, must often tell incomplete stories. For instance, the security analyst tells the security story and the governance analyst tells the IT governance story. It's a rare company that has users who can select the best plot elements from each story line and create the total picture of what end-to-end security looks like.

The call to action here: IT leaders need to write their own scripts. So the responsibility for crafting the message lies with you.

Truth number two: You must take time to sculpt a good message. The day-to-day pressures of our whack-a-mole work lives don't afford us the time to choose our words carefully. "We don't have time to speak well," goes the argument.

The great orators of the 19th century had the time and took the time to craft their messages. They would take about 20 days to think about a speech, spend a week driving that thinking into narrative structure and then commit all of it to memory.

Call to action: IT leaders need to devote more time to making their messages understandable. Two tips for would-be technology orators: don't use PowerPoint slides, and rehearse your speech in front of a tough audience before you go live with your message.

Business, particularly the business conducted at the top of the house, is based on oral communication. Isn't it time for IT leaders to do an oratorical upgrade? While many IT leaders have university-level technological minds, they have ninth-grade oratorical skills. We live in an age when the quality of the words of IT has to reflect the significance of IT's contribution.

Thornton May is corporate futurist and chief awareness officer at Guardent.

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