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What We Can Learn from Mark Zuckerberg’s Two-day Congressional Marathon

Published: Apr 17, 2018
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Earlier this month, Mark Zuckerberg spent nearly ten hours over two days responding to questions from almost 100 Senate and House lawmakers. The issue was whether his social network company was doing enough to protect user privacy in the wake of the Cambridge Analytica scandal.

So how did the 33-year-old founder and current CEO of Facebook do? More importantly, what could those of us who will probably never have to testify before Congress, but may have to deliver presentations, speak at town hall or other public meetings, or interact with the news media learn from his performance? A lot!

By any measure, what Mr. Zuckerberg had to “endure” was daunting. Unlike many Congressional hearings where the witness might find support or an open mind from at least one side of the aisle, Zuckerberg was challenged by Democrats and Republicans alike. For the most part, he handled himself well. We’d characterize his performance as a success. But let’s take a closer look and grade that performance:

Messaging

Zuckerberg went to the hearings with specific, clear messages. And he delivered them – in his opening statements and throughout Q&A. No doubt, he and his team put much effort into determining what they wanted people to hear and remember. For instance:

  • He repeatedly acknowledged mistakes (e.g., being slow to identify Russian intervention in the
    election through fake ads) and personally accepted responsibility for them.
  • He referenced changes that have been and are being made to improve Facebook’s platform. One key message was that by year’s end, Facebook will have more than 20,000 employees devoted to security and content review.
  • He continually reminded the audience that users already have a great deal of control (“ownership”) over what they share, and that the control is not hidden, but is prominently displayed.

We’d give Mr. Zuckerberg high marks for his ability to speak plainly and avoid jargon (or at least explain it). He frequently had to explain (to non-tech-savvy ears) how Facebook operates, and he did so effectively, without annoyance or condescension. When Senator Orrin Hatch wanted to know how Facebook makes money when its service is free, Zuckerberg simply responded, “Senator, we run ads.” Duh!

An area where Mr. Zuckerberg fell a bit short was with powerful soundbites or “sparklers” – forms of expression that jump out and grab you. While he gave lots of examples, illustrations and compelling data, he was short on stories and analogies (two of the most powerful tools of persuasion) and memorable lines. One of his few memorable lines was, “This is an arms race,” – a reference to Russian hackers who are paid to use Facebook improperly.

Messaging grade: A-

Q&A

We’ll cut him some slack – based solely on the sheer number of questions he had to field. But overall, a solid job. He paused briefly before responding (shows thoughtfulness) and his answers were succinct (short answers are mandatory since lawmakers interrupt without mercy). When he was interrupted or accused of “filibustering,” he did not become confrontational.

He skillfully used what’s known as a “bridging” technique. In other words, not only did he respond to the question asked, occasionally he used it as a springboard to add a point of his own (i.e., his key messages). Perhaps the technique used most frequently by the questioners was to instruct Zuckerberg to answer “yes or no.” He knew when to avoid this trap and politely explained why he could not respond in such a manner. Even when pressed, he would not back down. Similarly, he was very comfortable in acknowledging when he did not know the answer and committed to following up – a solid approach, but difficult for some people to do.

Clearly, Zuckerberg and his team anticipated most of the questions, and undoubtedly he practiced his responses (hopefully aloud). He did less well with zingers and questions out of left field (e.g., “Would you be comfortable sharing with us the name of the hotel you stayed in last night?”). Although it’s not possible to anticipate these specific statements and questions, he needed to “think more quickly on his feet,” and learn the skill of showing no unease. That will come with age and more experience.

A major mistake on his part, in our judgment, was prefacing too many of his responses with the questioner’s title (e.g., Senator, Congressman, Congresswoman, etc.). We know this is polite, standard procedure, but he used it excessively – which “weakened” him – made him a subordinate. (Also, it was annoying.) While the questioners addressed him as “Mr. Zuckerberg,” they did so less frequently throughout their allotted time – creating the perception of superiority.

Q&A grade: B+

Delivery or “Platform” Skills

In his opening remarks at both the Senate and House hearings, Zuckerberg read a prepared statement – and he did so powerfully and with significant audience eye contact. A great start!

But beyond those few minutes, while he is smart and articulate (and speaks with word economy), he looks and sounds “robotic.” There’s little, if any, change in the sound of his voice (i.e., inflection). So he comes across as somewhat distant, detached, remote. In short, he lacks warmth. He’s difficult to connect with. Indeed, Louisiana Senator Kennedy said, “I’m a little disappointed in this hearing today. I just don’t feel like we’re connecting.”

In those few instances where the opportunity to use humor (and flash a smile) surfaced, he missed most of those opportunities. (Even when one senator who greatly admired what Mr. Zuckerberg created, playfully quipped, “Only in America,” he could not get Zuckerberg to play along and agree.)

Note to Mr. Zuckerberg: Before we can reach someone on an intellectual level, we must first connect with them on an emotional level.

Delivery Skills grade: C

Appearance

Mark Zuckerberg has a “boyish” look. As he gets older, he’ll appreciate that part of his DNA. But now, it can be a disadvantage. Thankfully, he now wears his hair shorter – since his curly hair makes him look even younger. Also thankfully, he eschewed his standard tee shirt or hoodie in favor of a suit. But it looked like something parents buy when their son is ready for his first suit. His shirt collar looked one neck size too large, and his tie was not tight and crisp. Appearance counts, and he should have consulted a fashion professional – not to turn him into someone he isn’t, but to help create a more polished, seasoned, executive presence.

Not wearing a wedding ring was a mistake. Trust increases when we see a wedding ring on a man. Another mistake was sitting on a booster cushion during Day 1 (removed for Day 2). It was easy to spot and some media quickly picked up on it and reported it. Let the jokes begin . . . and they did.

Finally, Zuckerberg left his notes open on the table during a break in his Senate hearing. That allowed an Associated Press photographer to snap a picture of his talking points. A real rookie mistake – that one of his aides should have caught.

Appearance grade: C

While it’s not every day that an executive is asked to appear on Capitol Hill, it can happen. What can happen more frequently is a request to testify at a public utility commission hearing, give a legal deposition or serve as a trial witness. Today’s executives would be well advised to know how to handle such situations. And, of course, media training can help!

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