Mario Sundar

LinkedIn's 2nd PR hire. These are my thoughts on products, public relations, and startups.

The Larry Summers Show: Straight Talk. Served Angry.

Yesterday, Larry Summers, whose words have landed him into trouble on more than one occasion was interviewed by Walter Isaacson (Aspen Institute President and Steve Jobs biographer) at a Fortune conference. Of course, the blogosphere was abuzz, but I felt the interview was interesting on a couple other areas on CEO communications that I’ve spent quite some time talking about here.

Three more tips on being interviewed in public ensues… right after the pic.

BTW, I couldn’t embed the video here because WordPress sucks at embedding flash files (they cite security but what’s good for Tumblr’s good for me) on their posts and don’t give any other option either. Thank you very much! But, I digress.

1. Speak your mind. Don’t mince words. Not Angry.

Love him or hate him. You’ve got to give it to Larry Summers for speaking his mind — no matter, how controversial it is — and no matter how he is perceived at the end of the interview. Of course, he seems to get away with lecturing the audience in his professorial tone given his past history.

Why so serious?

The very first question was about a scene from the Social Network that portrayed him being dismissive of the Winklevii twins (I’m not gonna get into the details, but if you’re reading this blog, I guess you’ve watched the movie). Here was his no-nonsense answer to it.

I’ve heard it said that I can be arrogant.

If that’s true, I surely was on that occasion.  One of the things you learn as a college president is that if an undergraduate is wearing a tie and jacket on Thursday afternoon at three o’clock, there are two possibilities.  One is that they’re looking for a job and have an interview; the other is that they are an a**hole.

This was the latter case.  Rarely, have I encountered such swagger, and I tried to respond in kind.

Of course, not everyone can pull this off, but for someone with Larry’s notoriety this was a great start to an entertaining interview.

2. The power of simple metaphors

I’ve said it before (while describing Steve Jobs’ style) and I’m gonna start collecting more examples of leaders who are effective at using simple metaphors to get across a point during interviews. In my opinion, this is the only way to communicate effectively to your audience. For instance, I thought Larry Summers probably made the simplest description of the debt ceiling debate in this interview:

Look, if we default on August 2nd, it’s going to be what happened after Lehman collapsed on steroids.  It’s going to be financial Armageddon.

The idea that adults who have some agenda, whatever the merits of their agenda, are really prepared to threaten sending the United States into default, to pursue their agenda, is beyond belief.

You know, I have had arguments with my college-aged children about spending, and sometimes we discuss whether they should spend less, whether they should pay, whether I should pay.  We don’t entertain the option that because we can’t resolve our argument, Visa should get stiffed

3. Got Stories? Share it.

I think one of the key reasons people watch keynote interviews is to learn something new but more importantly, to just hear some “exclusive” stories they’d normally not hear elsewhere. It’s kinda like one of the key reasons people read blogs instead of press releases.

My favorite moments from this interview were surely an answer on the different leadership styles of the two Presidents Summers has worked with: Presidents Obama and Clinton.

You’re working for Barack Obama.  If you have a meeting scheduled at ten o’clock, there’s a 25 percent chance that the meeting will begin before ten o’clock, and there’s a — you know what’s coming, and there’s a 70 percent chance that the meeting will have begun by 10:15.

If you wrote Barack Obama a memo before the meeting, it is a virtual certainty that he will have read it.  If you seek to explain the memo you wrote to him during the meeting, he will cut you off, and he will be irritated.  If he, as the leader of the meeting, will ask one or two questions to kick the tires, but will basically focus on how whatever subject you’re talking about fits with the broad vision and approaches of his presidency.

He will basically take the attitude if you’re his financial advisor, that if you can’t — it’s up to you to figure out whether preferred stock or subordinated debt is the appropriate financial instrument for your bailout, and that if he doesn’t trust you to figure it out, he’ll get a new financial adviser, but that is not the question on which he is going to spend time.

So it’s a very focused executive, big picture guidance, disciplined approach.  At the appointed time, his secretary will come in and will bring a card that says it’s time for his next meeting, and you will be out of that office within five minutes.  It is a certainty.  That’s working for Barack Obama, and it is a wonderful experience.

Working for Bill Clinton is also a wonderful experience.  It is a different experience.

(Laughter.)

And, here’s his experience working with President Clinton:

The probability that there is compensation for the fact that your meeting will begin late, it is virtually certain to end late.  Bill Clinton has a 30 percent chance of having read your memo before the memo.  Bill Clinton will, however, with near certainty, have some set of quite detailed and thoughtful perspectives to offer on your topic.

He will say things like “I was in the White House library reading the Journal of Finance, and there’s some really interesting thinking about the role of dividends in the system.”  “I went to a conference at the Brookings Institution 11 years ago, and do you know that there’s a really interesting experiment with providing credit access in Tennessee?”

“Did you read the latest issue of — the Asian edition of The Economist?  It had a perspective on Thailand that you might want to think about.”  There was a stunning, I mean you know, while he wasn’t reading your memo, it wasn’t that he wasn’t doing anything about it.

I’ve a couple more interesting themes on corporate social media I’ll start covering shortly as I continue my fluency of writing posts on here. In the meanwhile, follow me on Twitter.

Filed under: Leadership Communication, Public Relations, Public Speaking

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