I get to see a lot of CEOs do keynotes, and few do them well. Many think a keynote is their time to go through the firm’s financial performance. Others think of themselves as mega-sales reps and make the keynote a sales event. At events like this, those practices come off as lame.
However, Michael Dell is one of the best CEOs in the tech industry at giving a keynote. Talking about what makes his keynotes great could help others understand best practices.
CEO As the Company Cheerleader
The CEO’s role isn’t to sell products or services -- it is to sell the company. CEOs should be best at selling their companies as a source for solutions -- not at selling the individual solutions themselves. In the case of a founder, like Michael Dell, they also represent continuity from the beginning of the company to its current state. Therefore, they are also best at talking about the firm’s future. Because they can credibly talk about the past, they can draw an imaginary line that is equally credible for the future.
This was the nature of Michael Dell’s keynote at Dell World 2012. He spoke to the various divisions -- client, servers, software, and services -- and spoke of them as members of his portfolio of components that constitute the company. He also spoke not only about the firm’s success at present but also its expected success in the future, creating that imaginary line I spoke of.
CEO As An Event Guide
But a good CEO keynote doesn't just talk about the company. Because the CEO generally has the first keynote, he or she is also the most able to push people into the sessions that will follow. Michael Dell spoke about each major session, mentioned the person leading it, and made an argument as to why people in the audience should attend. This is important at large events because, while folks will go to the first keynote, it isn’t unusual for them to get pulled back to their hotel rooms to get work done and miss sessions that they should be watching.
A good keynote also helps personalize both the event and the CEO. You, as an attendee, not only get reinforcement of the names of important people you should be talking to, but the CEO showcases his knowledge of them, making them appear more like his family.
There is one aspect of a talk like this that is sales related. A CEO, like no other executive, is best able to introduce customer advocates and let them sell Dell as a solution provider.
Years ago, we did a series of studies on influence. The most influential person was always someone who bought a product; they were massively more influential than someone who sold a product.
Michael Dell brought on stage a number of CEOs both in person and through the magic of video (not everyone can get on a plane when needed). One of the most compelling was from Tulane University. He spoke to the major problems they had, particularly after a major weather catastrophe, and told how Dell stepped up and helped them get back on their feet.
It is critical that advocates appear sincere--not like a paid shill. Each example in the keynote showcased the real help Dell apparently provided, and each presentation conveyed the message of Dell as a company that stepped up when the going got tough.
The healthcare presentation made the point that your life may depend on Dell technology getting your doctor or researcher information when it's needed. TGen, the example, clearly believed Dell was making this happen today.
Michael Dell also pushed folks to Steve Felice’s session on the following day. It would showcase many more customer testimonials, a fact that emphasized the importance of these advocates and assured more people would attend these sessions.
Michael Dell closed by pointing to Dell’s efforts to create new businesses. He then introduced Bill Clinton, who spoke about his own philanthropic events.
This section of the address related to a CEO’s primary mission of owning the company’s image, of being someone who people want to do business with. A friendly, helpful face in contrast to the many faceless corporations we all deal with. Bill tied Dell to his own global initiatives, but also pointed out that Susan Dell, Michael Dell’s wife, was uniquely engaged in improving the world.
You know, this mention of Susan Dell should be a best practice. In today's world, we are often talking more about how CEOs have fidelity problems and seem to treat their spouses as if we were still living in the 1950s. I personally think that people and companies are stronger if the spouses, particularly at the top, are part of the team. The fact that Susan Dell is part of this effort and clearly an important and critical part of Dell’s image and future warms my heart, and, I think, makes Dell (both the company and the person) far more human in a good way.
This was nicely done. I wish more CEOs, and companies, followed Michael Dell’s excellent example.