Sean McKenna – CFO, Hi-Rez Studios

Tell me about your situation before you’d heard of me.

I started doing financial forecasts, which gave me more areas and involvement, more people to talk to, more presentations to do then external presentations to make, or just chats. It’s not always a formal presentation, but ‘Hey, can you meet with these investment bankers?’

What were the initial challenges you came up against?

There were kind of two main categories of things I’m not very comfortable with, very much linked:

  1. Discomfort, especially in new situations. I’d worry: ‘How do I sound?’ ‘Is this coming across well?’ ‘Am I getting the message across?’
  2. Clarity. Sometimes I finish a call and just think ‘I did not make my points very well’.

They‘re linked because if you’re on a call where you’re uncomfortable, then you start focusing on ‘How’s this coming across?’, ‘Am I doing well and how do I sound?’ ‘Is my audio clear?’ instead of the conversation itself. Also, those new situations where I’d think ‘I don’t know how this is going to go.’ That led me to deciding that I need to prepare more, but do good preparation, not just ‘I’m going to run through it a few times.’

The discomfort causes less clarity, but even on calls where I might have felt fine, I could see other presentations and to think, ‘wow, he’s making the point well’, so they all link together whereas I’m rambling in different directions.

And then minor things, such as feeling I’m telling people things that they already know, or that everyone is just sitting there working on something else and they all just want me to get through it. ‘`Should I speed up?’, ‘Shouldn’t I?’ Lots of little things like that.

What was the impact of those problems?

I think they had a much bigger impact on me than my audience. I was developing a feeling that my career was way ahead of my communication skills because I was getting more and more responsibility. There was occasional promotion and I thought ‘I still feel this way,’ or watch something back and think ‘that wasn’t great’, ‘I’m director and vice president and I’m talking like that. I don’t think that’s good enough for the level of my career.’

Was there a particular point where you decided, ‘Right, I’ve got to sort this out’?

Well, I’d taken a lot of action in the past; I’d read some books, and even one specifically about public speaking, also lots of books about mindset such as ‘Mindset’ by Carol Dweck. I’d watched some TED talks on confident communication or being a great presenter, and I’d even been a member of a couple of public speaking clubs, and they were quite useful in a certain way. But I’d never considered one-to-one sessions for communication. A colleague and I were having a beer is a year into the pandemic and he said to me, ‘Next step for you, it’s got to be CEO of a small company or a scaling starter or something like that’. And I’m pretty flattered – ‘Wow, that’s cool that people think of me like that. That’s a very good thing’. I said: ‘I’d love to do that one day, but right now I feel like I need a bit more experience.’ My communication skills just wouldn’t be up to it.’ I didn’t think I could walk into a company on day one, gather people and say, ‘Right, we’re going to do this’ and have really clear communication, be a little bit inspirational or at least motivate them to think ‘This guy knows what he’s talking about. We’re going to go in a good direction here, whatever it is’. I just said to him, ‘I don’t think I can do that right now’ and he said, ‘Well, you’ve got to work with Jon.’

I didn’t have a moment where I thought, ‘Right, I’m going to find a communication coach because I need to do something right now.’ but more someone else saying, ‘have you ever considered this?’

What did we do together?

We started working on an intro; you would give me good feedback on it such as ‘It was quite quick’ or ‘Don’t learn the script’. Instead of it being ‘Why don’t you give me a presentation about your work’, you had me tell a dramatic story. The stories were pretty key to a lot of it; Instead of saying, ‘Here’s a lot of numbers and this is what it means’, injecting a couple of stories in there to make it more relatable and more memorable.

The sessions were fun and just very, very useful. With all the other ways to improve your public speaking skills or your communication skills, I don’t feel you get the same level of feedback; you can ask people at work ‘How was that?’ and they say it was really good, even if it wasn’t. They were fun sessions, really useful and quite intensive, with lots of feedback. A very condensed hour of speaking, getting feedback and learning new perspectives on things.

What was your experience of Toastmasters?

My main criticism of Toastmasters is that it’s an incredible amount of time investment for relatively little experience. It usually last two hours, and most of the time you talk for a minute to two minutes. You tend to get good critical feedback generally, but you don’t get the same continuity of feedback; when you do the six-minute talk, you get a minute evaluation and they might say, ‘This was great, you need to work on this’. The next time you do a talk, it’ll be someone else. You join and about three weeks later they tend to say, ‘Do you want to be Vice president of the club?’ and then president the year after. I don’t have time for all the other meetings that would come with it, so I can’t commit to that.

How did you find that implementation of what we’ve worked on together between our sessions?

I was presenting a lot of work, so I had plenty of opportunities to put it all into action. I would take my own notes during our sessions and you sent me notes, so I had clear guidelines of what I needed to work on. It worked well for me to have written feedback and things to work on between the sessions.

When did you start seeing real improvements?

There was an immediate impact. I thought, ‘Wow, I’m actually doing something about this and it’s really useful.’

We had nine sessions about once a month, and between each one was a good period of time to remember the specific aspects we were working on together. I saw some really good improvements. Even though I’m really busy, I now take more time to prepare for each talk, especially where you think, ‘Right, this needs to go well’.

People always say, ‘What’s the secret? What’s the one thing I can do?’ And you said, ‘Well, are you prepared? Because there is no one thing. But if you’re not prepared, I can’t help you. If you are prepared, take comfort in that preparation.’ Just thinking through what could come up and then having talking points about those things was very useful, fantastic. And of course, being told if your microphone is rubbish; I love that. You said, ‘I’ll tell you, no one else will.’ Someone else might tell you, but it’ll be six months down the line.

What were the most valuable things you learnt?

Most valuable was getting really specific feedback. No one’s ever said to me, ‘At the start, work on your intonation because at the start of the sentence you’re up here and then it just goes down and you start all your sentences like that.’ We just need to be told the obvious, really specific things that you can do straight away.

I’ve noticed things about the way other people speak and I don’t tell them because I don’t know if they’re open to feedback. Your feedback was tailored to me, such as vocal range and speed of delivery. I think if you gave a talk at work and said to someone, ‘Seriously, be honest, how did that go?’, no matter how terrible it was, they’re going to say they would just say, ‘Oh, it was all fine’ because they just don’t want to have the awkward conversation.

You can get inconsistent advice. Whereas you’re really specific about certain things and one of them is quite interesting given your background: you wouldn’t think you would go to a communication coach who used to be a stand-up comic and who says, ‘Be really careful with humour, don’t do prepared jokes because they’re going to fall flat’. Whenever I think of that I think of when Mark Zuckerberg said, ‘I know our reputation for privacy isn’t exactly great’ and no one laughs – his face just drops. It’s a horrendous moment. I reckon the number one bit of bad advice you can get from people about presenting: they’ll always say ‘drop some humour in there. Make everyone laugh a couple of times because it lightens the mood, it goes quicker,’ stuff like that. I think you can get very varying advice from other people and risky or just bad advice. Your approach to that was much more practical and much more realistic.

What were the best outcomes now you’ve done this training, what are the things that have changed?

I felt a lot better in lots of situations. Calls with external people went much better and were considerably less nerve-wracking beforehand because I just thought ‘I’ve done lots of new things and they’ve all gone fine. This is another new thing’. It added a dimension to what I’d already been doing: a bit of Toastmasters and trying to get a lot of experience. There’s also the research side: before I would just like come across something. You provided a lot of additional resources; Kurt Vonnegut, Amy Cuddy, all these things were very useful because they were more targeted.

I’m in a position now where on any given companywide call our CEO might say “Oh, Sean can talk a bit about that.” So just having those bullet points prepared about specific topics that might come up is super useful. To note down more stories in just two or three bullet points of ‘This thing happened’, because we just forget all these useful stories that relate to a particular topic.

If you’re going through a rough patch in the company, people are going to ask really awkward questions that pertain exactly what I do, such as ‘How much cash do we have?’ or ‘How long can this company possibly last?’. I need a pretty good answer there because I can’t just say “That’s all confidential”. It’s about having much better preparation: some talking points and stories.

And then the feedback, which is even more important. It changed my perspective because from now I expect to use a communication coach. If I need to do something important for a conference, I’d want to run it by you. And then probably every few years let’s see where I am now, because it’s not I just needed nine sessions with Jon and it’s fixed. It’s a gradual improvement.

I was in a bit of a funk at the time and so it’s really useful to get out of that and come back to my notes from our sessions every now and then go through these things.

What I tended to do before was to think ‘I’m not doing very well at the moment; I need a new thing, a new book’. Our work changed my perspective to think, ‘I can go back and look at my notes and think, ‘right; What do I need to do?’ I need to invest a bit more time into storytelling, into general communication, into talking points.

If you’re not focused on it, it’s not going to happen. I’m very busy, so it’s very difficult to justify taking half an hour to sit back and think of things that have happened lately and write some of them down. I love that you showed me the importance of carving out that time and focusing on the long term, because otherwise in years I’ll just go ‘Oh well, I haven’t focused on communication skills and I don’t feel like I’m very good at it’. That’s just going to keep happening.

I feel I’m more getting towards my own speaking persona. Like Charles Handy said: ‘The moment will arrive when you are comfortable with who you are, and what you are– bald or old or fat or poor, successful or struggling – when you don’t feel the need to apologize for anything or to deny anything. To be comfortable in your own skin is the beginning of strength.’

Copying a successful speaker can lead to losing authenticity. You just need to bring out that side of you that you’re comfortable with so that can do a good presentation.

You said to me, ‘you’re in presentation mode, just that little bit formal, make it more conversational’, and you and I were very much aligned on that. I didn’t want to be in that presentation mode, using a ‘TV voice’. That was really good specific feedback. If you’re in presentation mode at work, no one’s going to say, ‘why are you speaking like that?’

What did you like best about working with me?

I liked the nature of the sessions. You have a great balance between taking it very seriously – you do it for a living, that’s a given – and using levity: “let’s take a step back, talk for a bit and then you can go again”.

What I remember about our sessions is that it’s a serious subject that can be fun to talk about, even funny to think about even your own failures and stop them haunting you. I like that approach: more fun, relaxed, realistic.

You could have a communication coach saying, ‘this is extremely serious and you’ve got to bring your best every time’ and not having a bit of a laugh about what a funny situation it is that we all take this thing seriously.

Would you recommend working with me and why?

I would recommend working with you because, obviously, it’s an incredibly important skill. and I know I think most people will focus on the public speaking side of it. But you actually deliver a lot more value than that. And it’s about communicating generally; it can be communicating in a group of five people on a call or in person, and if you build up your stories or even if you just have your talking points for everybody. As you mentioned, JFK’s speech writer Ted Sorenson said: ‘Charity, levity, clarity, brevity’.

If you can communicate in a really succinct way, people think ‘wow, what an effective communicator’. It’s not just about the public speaking side for me. And that’s really important.

I think it’s important to continue developing all three areas of experience, feedback and research. Presenting to you was very useful. Your feedback’s way better than, say. Toastmasters. It’s much more actionable, specific and just more honest. You added a lot on the research side as well.

Before I met you, I just thought that you read books and you try to get some experience and you work it out. Now I think, there are three distinct things and I need to work on all of them, and that’s an ongoing process. For me, it’s much more of a longer-term journey of I want to keep getting better at this. There’s no reason at some point I can just say ‘I definitely don’t need to get any better at communicating’. Everyone’s got something to learn; it doesn’t matter who they are.

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