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OCC People:  A Booming Voice: Otto's Secret Weapon


By Fleming Saunders
Public Affairs Operations

The legendary evangelist of the eighteenth century, George Whitefield, was reputedly heard by 30,000 people at a time. The OCC of the twenty-first century has the booming voice of Bert Otto, with 40 years of spreading the gospel of safety and soundness.

Bert Otto speaking at a Minority Deposit Institution Conference.

Bert Otto speaking at a Minority Deposit Institution Conference.

The Deputy Comptroller for the Central District delivers a blunt warning in his speeches: “We’ve just had a financial crisis,” says Otto, who has witnessed several boom-and-bust cycles since examining his first bank in Indianapolis in 1973. “Bankers must understand their products and services, design solid strategic plans, and do business in a safe and sound manner. Or else they’ll make the same mistakes again and cause another crisis.”

Covering nine Midwestern states out of the Chicago District Office, Otto speaks regularly to bankers, trade associations, and reporters. Along with Jennifer Kelly, Senior Deputy Comptroller for Midsize and Community Bank Supervision, Otto joins the other district deputy comptrollers, associate deputy comptrollers, assistant deputy comptrollers and lead experts, and his colleagues in Large Bank Supervision to get the message out. “The agency provides us many good opportunities to speak on banking and supervisory issues at trade association and other meetings across the country,” Otto says.

Otto began his speaking career as a high school quarterback barking out signals in a small town in southern Indiana. “The whole team heard me!” he says. Eight years later, he was a newly minted examiner at a country bank in Dana, Ind. “I was speaking to the board of directors. A director, a farmer, was dozing off. I raised my voice to make a point. The guy woke up and almost fell off his chair. I realized, I have a weapon here!” he exclaims. Otto’s church won’t let him in the choir lest he overwhelm the other singers. “I can’t carry a tune!” he laughs.

Many years ago, Otto was invited to attend a training class for instructors in a suburb of Chicago. He had just walked in the door when his hosts announced that he would be a good instructor. He asked, “Why? I’ve never done it before.” They said, “You have a good voice!”

But he learned that good speaking means preparation. In 1994, freshly arrived at Headquarters in Washington, D.C., he was asked to be a last-minute substitute speaker at a risk management conference in Florida. He knew little of the subject—the rewriting of the Community Reinvestment Act. “It was terrible,” he says. “I could answer only a third of their questions.”

“If you don’t know something,” Otto says, “admit it up front. The audience will understand.” At a recent two- hour panel discussion in Minneapolis, “probably four or five times I didn’t know the answer to a highly complex question regarding Call Report instructions and accounting issues. Same for my counterpart from the FDIC. We promised to get answers and get back to them.”

Otto admits getting butterflies when preparing for speaking engagements. “But it gives me energy,” he says. “It makes me attentive to the audience. You must tell them things that can help them. Or else they won’t listen.” Otto believes “most bankers want to do the right thing. Our job is to explain it the right way.”

Otto emphasizes that the secret to delivering a good speech is to make no more than three key points and return to them several times so the audience clearly gets the message. Says Otto, “I got a compliment at the last Independent Community Bankers meeting. A reporter from Florida came up and said, ‘I can really relate to the way you speak.’ It’s like sitting down for a cup of coffee—informal, simple, as direct as possible.”

Over four decades of public speaking, Otto has learned a great deal about giving effective presentations.

Here are some of his favorite tips:

  • Relate to your audience by keeping your remarks as informal, simple, and direct as possible.
  • Make only three points. More can confuse the listeners.
  • Don’t be afraid to add humor to your remarks.
  • Admit it if you don’t know the answer to a question, but indicate you’ll get back to the questioner with the answer.
  • Practice in front of the mirror – listen to sound bouncing back.
  • Practice voice projection—don’t forget the folks in the back row.
  • Take a deep breath before making a (loud) point.
  • Write reminders on your speech text—LOUDER!
  • Have a colleague in the room make hand signals if you speak too low.
Last Updated: 10/21/2014