Ten top speaking gurus: How good are they, really?

How good are the world’s top gurus as speakers? When you’re headed to a speech by C. K. Prahalad, Paul Krugman, Richard Branson, Philip Kotler, Gary Hamel, Michael Porter, Marshall Goldsmith, Ram Charan, Jack Welch, or Eric Schmidt, what kind of experience are you in for—good or bad?

Here’s the skinny on ten of the top gurus.

According to Forbes, C. K. Prahalad is the world’s most influential business thinker, and aside from a tendency to use slightly too dense, under-designed slides in support of his talk, Prahalad is an extraordinary presence. He has enormous gravitas, a remarkable comfort level in front of an audience, and a natural way of talking that many business speakers could learn from.

His talks make no concessions to the ill-informed or the casual listener. They are thoughtful and demanding. Take on Prahalad if you’re prepared to pay close attention, work hard, and maybe even take notes. He comes across like a tough professor lecturing to students—which is of course exactly what he is and what he is doing much of the time.

Paul Krugman, on the other hand, is one of those people who is so brilliant that he can’t finish a sentence. He constantly interrupts himself with new ideas and half-finished thoughts. His mind is racing far ahead of his words, and the result is that clarity and syntax are the victims. He’s often quite hard to follow because of this fractured kind of speaking.

And his delivery? He’s nasal, and his voice tends to go up into his nose and get more so when he gets excited. That tendency, coupled with body language that lacks authority, and you have someone who in person doesn’t live up to the advance billing.

Richard Branson at least knows his own limits. He’s not a good public speaker; he’s halting, shy, and labored. (Indeed, he typically avoids stand-alone public speaking and instead does interviews or shows video.) But he’s also charming, thoughtful, and very, very smart. If you bear with the awkwardness, the results are worth it. Branson is one of those rare individuals who has figured out how to do exactly what he wants to do and be incredibly successful at it—all the while apparently having loads of fun. Most of us can learn from him.

Philip Kotler is, unfortunately, a ponderous speaker very much in the old-fashioned academic style, long on substance and short on style. Not very entertaining, very straightforward, and a little behind the times. But sincere, completely authoritative and obviously smart.

Kotler wanders back and forth with that irritating absence of thought and excess of adrenaline that has caused many a nervous talker to get happy feet. This behavior is also very typical of the professor who is thinking as he goes, with only a general outline in his head about where he might end up. A tenured professor can get away with it, but that doesn’t make it right. Kotler will give you the basics; go to someone else for pizzazz.

The management guru Gary Hamel, by way of contrast, is all energy. He’s probably the best ranter in the top ten business speakers. But he lacks polish. The effect is of a rather over-earnest high school social studies teacher shouting to keep students’ attention and afraid that he’s about to lose them. The performance is initially arresting, but it grows wearisome after a bit. Hamel has two levels, loud and not loud. That soon becomes annoying. And his diction is so mushy as to be inarticulate at times when he throws the end of a sentence away.

Michael Porter is as low key on first look as Hamel is jazzed. He appears quite relaxed and conversational in his manner. But then his hands give him away. They’re all over the place, waving, clutching themselves, coming together under his chin in a prayerful position. Altogether, there’s too much motion from Porter; his gestures become distracting after a few minutes. It’s too bad, because he’s smart and articulate, and there’s no reason why he couldn’t learn to simplify his gestural conversation just a little. Taking that step would give him much more authority and gravitas—and he’d be easier to watch.

Then you notice his voice. It’s nasal, and that becomes tiresome after five or ten minutes. The research suggests that nasal voices do not wear well on listeners, and Michael Porter, with all his erudition, is a case in point. Again, it’s simply too bad, because nasal voices are easily rendered more resonant with a little discipline and practice. Porter needs to get to work.

Marshall Goldsmith needs to get over himself. He’s a mixture of good and bad habits, and he gets good and bad effects as a result.

His good points? He’s funny, direct, articulate, fast-paced and he delivers home truths in rapid-fire succession.

His bad habits? He’s arrogant, dismissive of the audience, laughs at his own jokes, and constantly points his finger at the audience like an admonishing parent while he paces relentless back and forth—scolding the audience for doing things wrong, when he should be including the audience in his circle instead.

Ram Charan speaks with a good deal of authority, but he has the bad habits that all too often seem to come with that authority: he’s not as clear as he thinks he is, he’s unselfconscious to a fault, and he paces through the audience with a disconcerting lack of direction. The non-verbal confusion mirrors the verbal confusion.

Despite all that, he is a very smart man giving solid, commonsense insights into successful business practices. He makes the listener work harder than one should have to, however, because of his lack of discipline as a speaker.

Jack Welch is a pleasant surprise: an energetic, intelligent speaker. He’s at his best responding to questions, and he does so with real thoughtfulness and candor. That said, he comes across as a bit of a bully with a nasal, harsh voice that grates on the ear and a tendency to think his answers are more startling and original than they are. He’s a real Yankee—the kind that says “chaaaage,” not “charge” and “staaaat,” not “start.”

Jack is fine in small doses, and when he’s well focused. But he would pall over the longer haul of an hour-long speech. Catch him on the Q&A.

Finally, Eric Schmidt is a highly self-assured and competent speaker. He projects a sense of ease, which is the single most important thing you can do to improve your overall connection with the audience—it’s just not easy to accomplish. To be sure, he commits all the mistakes of someone who has not made public speaking proficiency a high priority: He looks down at his speaking notes before he finishes the previous sentence, he uses fake gestures, and his gestures happen too late in the intent-gesture-think-speak sequence that people employ when they’re being natural. To name a few. But overall, he’s quite comfortable with his speaking, and that’s unusual for a business speaker.

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