Friday, March 27, 2009

Tim Geithner: More Than Media Training – The Truth Will Out

Mr. Geithner, we don’t have the financial background to know if you’re doing a good job, or if you’re honest or even if you know what you’re doing.

But we do have TV and youtube and your body language gives us pause. That pause is your problem.

As any student of communication knows, only 7% of our message comes from words. The other 93% is nonverbal which we “read” on a primitive, visceral level. When there is a disconnect between the two, we instinctively believe and make judgments on the nonverbal. We do not think, “Poor guy, he’s a bit nervous.” Or, “He must have failed Speech 101.” No. We decide: “The bum; he’s lying.”

And that’s the bind you’re in. At worst, we see deception. At best, you’re confusing us. Here’s why.

AP Photo/Mark Lennihan
Most troublesome is your demeanor when answering questions, especially your wrinkled forehead, raised eyebrows, head tilt to the right with chin down. Taken as a whole it is what we call in Texas a hang-dog expression indicating sneakiness, guilt or someone who has been intimidated. None of them a good look for a department Secretary.

Taking the signals separately, the raised eyebrows and wrinkled forehead are a sign of helplessness, often a request for approval. This could be endearing if it happened infrequently. But since it is your default expression almost every time you answer a question, it is disconcerting.

The tilted head is more problematic. Exposing the carotid artery on the side of the neck, it is a conciliatory gesture often used by women. Some even say a head tilted to the right, as yours often is, signals someone who feels obliged to give others a lot. AIG bonuses, anyone?

In podium speeches, your rocking, your rigid torso and stiff neck as you read the teleprompter and your flat, sing-song monotone give the impression that you’re a bit inept and, perhaps, don’t know what you’re doing. The monotone also leaves us feeling you have no passion for your job. That’s scary. Our future depends on your passion for this job.

Your best presentation is when you’re reading prepared remarks while sitting, such as at the various committee hearings. Your gaze takes in the whole audience. Missing are the raised eyebrows, tilted head and lowered chin, in other words, the submissive, conciliatory, deceptive signals. But this reprieve comes only when you’re reading prepared remarks at the table. Once the script is gone, the tics return.

There are two final problems. One, a cadence difficulty, occurs in Q&A sessions as well as in prepared remarks while sitting. You speak so quickly that words are slurred and swallowed. The impression: fast-talking used car salesman who’s hiding something. Your credibility plummets.

Finally, there is transparency and, maybe, humility. This is the take-away from Hillary Clinton’s failed presidency bid. Her lack of transparency on her Iraq vote – and the humility to say “I would do it differently today” - cost her dearly. Though most of us don’t have the time – or the inclination – to document what you knew, what you said and what you did when with regard to the AIG bonuses, it seems you were speaking against them at the same time you were advocating for them. To different audiences, of course. And your fancy, nuanced tap dance around our legitimate questions and fears do not calm us. What will? Transparency, sir. Transparency. And the humility to ‘fess up if you messed up.

In the end transparency is also the way out. Though the problem may sound cosmetic, presence and presentation coaching alone will not solve it. In addition you need a deep transparency, a true congruence between your words and you intentions. If they are out of sync, nonverbal emotional seepage – the stuff of lie detection, the stuff we think we’re seeing on tv – leaves clues in your behavior. Your audience sees the disconnect and, hence, the brand: liar.

So, Mr. Geithner, work on your presentation. That is a must. But, in addition, deeply examine your motives. If you’re not being transparent, if your Main Street words are in any way posturing to divert us from a Wall Street agenda, fixing your body language will not make a difference. The truth will out.

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