Metro Business / Close:
Scott Weiss figured he was one whiz-bang communicator — a natural assumption by a mid-30s guy who had ascended to executive vice president of a media conglomerate, in charge of three divisions.
So, when the founder of Midtown-based Speakeasy Inc. invited Weiss to attend a workshop to cultivate his communication skills, he balked.
“That’s very nice of you,” he thought, “but I don’t have three days to give … and I probably don’t need it.”
Still, Weiss cashed in vacation time at Turner Broadcasting and enrolled. “The program,” he recalled, “was life-changing.”
You might say. A few months later, Weiss gave Turner his notice. His new employer: Speakeasy.
“I was such a poor communicator,” Weiss said. “I had gone in expecting it to be a typical skills presentation class. I left with an understanding of how others would experience me as a communicator and as a person.
“Now I am dedicated to helping others reach full potential through their personal communication.”
Weiss, 46, served nine years as executive VP at Speakeasy, then in January 2004 bought the business, which last year ran 3,500 mostly corporate types through programs in Atlanta, San Francisco and New York, plus special assignments in more than a half-dozen international cities.
In groups of 10 or fewer, all strangers, attendees undergo sessions lasting from one to three days. Standard fees range from $500 to $2,000, with deluxe programs escalating to $5,000.
Household name corporations such as Microsoft, Coca-Cola, Wachovia, Toyota, Cisco, Accenture and Ernst & Young periodically send their brass to Speakeasy. “Graduates” include Falcons owner and Home Depot co-founder Arthur Blank and Ruby Tuesday CEO Sandy Beall.
Focused on the spoken word, Speakeasy has expanded its curriculum to other forms of communication for managers who deal with employees, clients or the public. Weiss touts the Speakeasy philosophy as almost zenlike. Ideally, participants connect with their inner selves as a prelude to connecting with others. Its faculty stresses creating trust with listeners and showing concern for them, virtues that Weiss maintains are in short supply throughout the business cosmos.
Q: Why do you see a need for executives to receive training in this area?
A: How we view ourselves as a communicator gets distorted because everybody wants you to feel good about yourself [with their feedback]. Thought leaders often get in a room together and develop a communication strategy among themselves with very little time and energy invested in the listener. They don’t develop the content, and the style in which they deliver it, in a way that takes into account the reality of the listener.
It’s easy to develop a presentation based on five people sitting in a room and what they think is important. It’s a lot harder to do that taking into account a global staff or thousands of consumers, and sweating through how we can make the message strong — not for us, for them. It’s not just what you know, but your ability to inspire and motivate others. A really good communicator is constantly checking in with the audience to make sure they are getting it.
Q: Why does ‘connecting with yourself’ matter?
A: The better tuned in you are to your own behavior and habits, the easier it is to connect with others. You hear about having good chemistry with another person. What does that mean? Good chemistry is good communication.
It has to start with you. You have to be keenly aware of your own capabilities. The ability to communicate with trust is seeing who is in front of you, as they really are, and communicating in a way that’s meaningful for them. A lot of leaders, particularly in business, communicate only for themselves and not for others. Communication is two-way. And that is a learned behavior.
Q: Are the workshops effective for everyone?
A: You have three types of people. There are the ones who totally understand the role that communication plays in their lives and come through and have fantastic experiences. The largest number come through with some level of skepticism and some willingness, and leave with a completely different understanding of the importance of communication in their lives. Then there is a group — a small minority — that is unfortunately so close-minded that they just can’t hear the feedback and can’t really apply it in a way that impacts change.
Q: What challenges with communication in the corporate sphere do you see?
A: One client said [communication breakdowns] reminded him of the game you played in elementary school where the person in the front of the class tells the second person a story and, by the time it gets to the last person, it’s a completely different story. That’s corporate America. That’s what happens every day unless executives know how to do it effectively. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been with CEOs and COOs who tell me, ‘I don’t know how that got out to our customers because that was not the intent.’ Somewhere along the line, the message just got all mixed up.
Q: How has technology affected the way we communicate?
A: One of my continuing conversations with leaders is about a growing concern that the next generation has been brought up with e-mail and PowerPoint as the main conduits to communication. There is not enough interpersonal communication. There is a place for e-mail and PowerPoint. But in the need for the quick, fast and easy, the corporate world has gone to an extreme. Like the two executives with offices 15 or 20 feet apart who constantly e-mail each other. At some point, there is a degradation of communication.
Q: You coach 7- and 8-year-olds. Have you learned anything about communicating with them?
A: Absolutely. I get down on my knee a lot. I want to see their faces. I want them to see mine. Too often, coaches are looking down at their heads and kids are looking at their belt buckle instead of their face. I let them talk a lot. I ask them questions.
Q: How would you evaluate your former boss, Ted Turner, as a speaker?
A: Very authentic. What you see is what you get. No masquerading, no pretending. Raw. To the bone, to the core. As direct as it can come. With a lot of passion. Sometimes misdirected passion but always with passion.
Scott Weiss: President and owner of Speakeasy Inc.
Each week, an interview with one of metro Atlanta’s intriguing business personalities.
Family: Wife Marci; daughters Alexandra, 16, and Monica, 12; son Jake, 8
College: Bachelor of Arts from Michigan State (Class of ’81)
Claim to fame: Created and launched the Airport Channel at CNN
Hobbies: Coaching youth sports; competing with the Atlanta Rowing Club; annual adventure trips with three friends (next destination: Yosemite)
Favorite public speakers: John F. Kennedy, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. (“Those two guys are extraordinary; they understood the needs of their listeners.”)
Favorite line from a speech: JFK’s “Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country.”
Favorite place to visit: Big Sur, Calif.