Wednesday, July 14, 2010

What IR Presentations Can Learn from Jazz

I was working out the other day and listening to one of my new favorite podcasts, NPR’s Driveway Moments. The particular segment I was listening to featured an interview with the jazz musician Wynton Marsalis, who was explaining jazz to the uninitiated. I definitely fall into that category, as I don’t “get” most jazz. Several of the things Wynton Marsalis said caught my attention and made me think that there are some interesting parallels between some things we see in music and investor relations presentations.

Most investor presentations are set pieces: you’ve got a speaker, a set of PowerPoint slides and a bunch of information that gets disseminated over the course of 30 minutes. In this they resemble classical music. They follow a prescribed score and they don’t deviate. The speaker covers every last bullet point, just as the musicians play every note, and everyone feels safe and secure because they are on familiar ground. The speakers, similar to orchestral players, are almost interchangeable and it’s very hard to see any individuality or emotion.

This approach has some merit in that everyone navigates the treacherous shoals of regulation and potential litigation and (usually) nobody gets fired. The problem with the approach is that it’s boring and it’s not very good at getting investors excited about your company’s prospects. And investors are buying the future stream of earnings of your company, not its past deeds. Next time you’re at an investor conference, sit and listen to three or four presentations in a row. I guarantee that you will be numb at the end of the last speaker.

Contrast this with jazz. There is a structure with rhythm and melody, but there is also room for some improvisations and solos. The improvisations and solos have to fit within the framework – they don’t work if they don’t fit into the structure of the piece, but they also allow for the expression of talent and passion for the subject matter.

More passion is needed at investor presentations. Speakers should be allowed to get excited about their companies and what they’re doing. They should have a passion and a pride in their products and people and it should show through to the investing public. This is very hard to do if what you’re saying is highly scripted.

One of the masters of conveying the excitement about what he was doing was a guy I used to work with at Walgreens, Dan Jorndt. He never worked with a script, but he always knew what he wanted to say. He put things in his words and allowed his passion and pride in the company to show. Investors loved him. Another master of the art is Howard Schultz at Starbucks. Not only can he convey the romance of a cup of coffee, he is passionate about what his company stands for, from the product to the entire customer experience. If you’re ever at an investor conference and he’s speaking, take the time to go and listen to him.

Now, I can sense that many IR officers out there are squirming and thinking, “We can’t do that with our guys, they’ll go right off the rails and into the ditch”. And perhaps the approach is not for everyone. Some speakers need more structure than others, but all speakers should be allowed to exhibit what they think makes their company great. And that doesn’t come from reading a bunch of bullet points off a slide. At the very least there should be a point within a presentation where a speaker can speak from the heart, whether it’s to tell a story about an employee or a customer, or the great new product the company has developed. To put it in a jazz context, a riff or solo within the structure of the piece that serves as an exclamation point to the entire presentation. Try it – you just might acquire a taste for it.

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