Lessons learned from James Murdoch

James Murdoch arrives at the Levenson media inquiry to give evidence at the High Court in London, April, 24, 2012.
AP Photo/Alastair Grant

COMMENTARY It's painfully obvious that James Murdoch has held senior positions within News Corporation (NWSA) because his father controls the business. But his increasingly embarrassing public performances, before committees investigating the corporation's dealings, have become an object lesson in public presentation and how not to do it. Murdoch Jr. isn't the first executive called upon to convey greater authority than he naturally has - everyone has to do this at some point in their career - so it's worth taking note of where he goes wrong.

1. Jargon cuts no ice

At his first appearance before the parliamentary select committee, James Murdoch threw jargon around with enthusiastic abandon. This gave the impression that he'd just emerged from his first year at business school, thus emphasizing his naivete, not his knowhow. Extensive use of jargon isn't just ugly; it always sounds like undigested, barely understood knowledge. The implication that your listeners will be dazzled is inadvertently but implicitly insulting.

2. Over-confidence repels

More recently, testifying before the Leveson inquiry, James Murdoch clearly tried to assert his authority by answering with terrific confidence every question about his proposed acquisition of outstanding shares in BSkyB. Since this deal ultimately fell through, his confidence about it, and his certainty as to its merit, came across not as mastery but arrogance. If you have to talk about a failed deal, it's a good idea to convey some sense that you are aware something somewhere went wrong.

3. Humor doesn't work in email

Murdoch has also tried to excuse references to illegaility in emails by claiming these remarks were humorous, not serious. Any grown up executive must know by now that email is the most humorless medium ever invented. Winking emoticons don't work and can't be read out in court. You do not ever want to have to explain an email joke in public so, if you have people working for you who still don't appreciate nuance, teach them fast.

On some level, James Murdoch's performance has been so ghastly one almost feels sorry for him. He appears to have had no training and no honest feedback. What Murdoch's embarrassment spells out is the crucial need, even (or especially) in a family fiefdom, for outside perspective. Someone should have saved him from himself.

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    Margaret Heffernan has been CEO of five businesses in the United States and United Kingdom. A speaker and writer, her most recent book Willful Blindness was shortlisted for the Financial Times Best Business Book 2011. Visit her on www.MHeffernan.com.