The Super Bowl of Public Speaking: Scoring Touchdowns – or Third & Long?

There is a short list of leaders who consistently score touchdowns when they speak, and those who do truly stand out as credible – and likable. Many seasoned leaders score high on what we call The Credibility Factor, but fall short on the Likability Factor. When leaders score touchdowns on both Factors, magic happens! A likable leader makes for a more likable organization to the public. People actually look forward to hearing them speak, which opens more doors of opportunity for them and their organizations. I have seen US Secretary of State (former ExxonMobil CEO), Rex Tillerson, speak at numerous venues over the years, from media interviews to testifying before Congress. He often came across as dry, bland and boring. He failed to humanize his organization. So, I was curious to see how his first speech to US State Department employees would go this week.

Tillerson could have comfortably retired from ExxonMobil this year, but instead, he jumped into the frying pan of world politics. Going in, he faced the highest opposition for any secretary of state nominee in history, receiving 56 yes votes and 43 no votes from the Senate. Some State Department officials recently quit to protest President Donald Trump and Tillerson’s arrival. So, this week when the news media carried his first address to State Department employees “live”, there was much at stake. It was crucial that Tillerson set the right tone as their new leader and “break the ice” with the people whose support he needs to succeed.

In honor of the Super Bowl, I combed through Tillerson’s speech a dozen times and identified where he scored “touchdowns” during his speech to his new team – and where he was “third and long”. (If you are not a football fan, third and long is not the ideal situation.)


Openings and first impressions can make or break your success with an audience. Tillerson direly needed to bring some levity to his first meeting with his new team, where there is already a level of distrust among some. On top of that, he arrived late for his first address to employees because the National Prayer Breakfast he attended across town ran longer than planned. So, Tillerson opened with just the right touch of humor by saying, “I apologize for being late. It seemed at this year’s prayer breakfast, people felt the need to pray a little longer.” There was immediate laughter and applause. Score Tillerson.

Touchdown – and Third & Long:

Nonverbal cues account for 88% of how people perceive you – and greatly affect your ability to engage people. Most executives do not pay enough attention to their nonverbal delivery skills. Tillerson obviously oozes of great confidence and credibility, as shown by the strength of his voice, relaxed rate of speech, eye contact with all audience quadrants and overall demeanor. For those elements, he scores another touchdown.

Yet, he rates a “third and long” on other nonverbal elements. Within his first minutes of taking the podium he clasped his hands together and did this multiple times throughout his speech. We call this grabbing the “security blanket” and many executives do this during their speeches. Tillerson also held on to the sides of the podium throughout his speech. We call this “the podium hug”. Every thing you do communicates to your audience, and most executives lack an effective game plan for using their hands when they speak. Executives who effectively use their hands increase both their Credibility and Likability Factors.


Self-revelation is a great way to pull back the curtain and show people a glimpse of your soul and human side. Executives who do this reap great rewards with their audience. Tillerson introduced his wife of thirty years, Renda, and later shared other personal and touching insights into Rex, the family man. “Before President Trump called me, I thought I would be retiring this spring – after four decades of business experience. Renda and I were ready to head off to the ranch and enjoy our grandchildren, but when I came back from my first meeting with President Trump and he asked me to do this, Renda said, ‘You didn’t know it, but you’ve been in a forty-one year training program for this job.’ (More applause.) So, despite our own dreams, she said, ‘You’re supposed to do this.’ Well, my first day is here. I’m on the job. Hi, I’m the new guy.” (More laughter and more applause.)


At some point in every speech, it is paramount the speaker join the world of his audience. From our expertise in Neuro Linguistic Programming (NLP), we call this “pacing the reality of your audience” and it allows you to connect at a deeper, emotional level. Tillerson did not execute this as well as he could have, but he came close. After breaking the ice with some well-timed humor, he spoke of his high regard for the men and women of the State Department, and acknowledged their successes in the face of difficult world situations and challenges. He called their dedication, intelligence, and sound judgment “the brick and mortar elements” of the organization. He thanked them for their patriotism and called them the finest public servants in the world, saying, “When the world sees you, they see America.”

Third & Long:

The best speakers never sound like they are reading – even when they are reading! I have witnessed Tillerson reading at Congressional hearings and other venues, and that was why I discounted him as a powerful executive speaker. There were times during his State Department speech that his reading wasn’t a distraction, because he had the right mix of projection, inflection, humor and pauses. But, other times he slipped back into the monotonous reading mode. This is why we encourage executives to use bulleted notes whenever possible, instead of being fully scripted. When a script is necessary, our rule for executives is, “Look down, get your thoughts. Look up, deliver your thoughts.” It takes time to perfect this art form, but it pays off for those who choose this path.

Tillerson spoke for almost twelve minutes, and in that time he earned applause nine times and hearty laughter eight times. That’s not bad for a guy who faced more opposition going into this office than any other secretary of state nominee in history. Tillerson has an interesting combination of a sophisticated world leader and “down to earth” Texan that came out in his speech. This was a critical first engagement with his new team, and despite a few “third and long” moments, he managed enough “touchdowns” to move toward his desired goal line.