The Buck Stops Here….Or Does It?

A few years ago, I interviewed two of Lee Iacocca’s speechwriters for an article on how the former Chrysler CEO used speeches as a powerful management tool. One of the factors they stressed was that Iacocca always made it a point to get out front on issues. In particular, he took responsibility for problems and moved quickly to fix them.

A recent article in Chief Executive points out that too many of today’s executives take a much different approach. The author, Jeffrey Sonnenfeld of the Yale School of Management , starts out by noting the tendency of current political leaders (citing both President Trump and Hilary Clinton) to blame others for their setbacks.

Turning to the corporate world, he indicts high-profile CEOS, such as BP’s Tony Hayward and Wells Fargo’s John Stumpf, for also trying to wriggle out of responsibility for mistakes. This tendency is so widespread, psychologists have even given it a fancy label: “self-serving bias in attribution.”

I guess that sounds better than “being gutless.”

The good news is that there are still a lot of gutsy executives on the job. Sonnefeld reports that many corporate leaders “have shown us how to beat this bias through confession, courage, contrition and correction.” He cites James Burke of Johnson & Johnson confronting the Tylenol-tampering crisis, GM’s Mary Barra’s handling of the ignition-switch safety crisis, and Anne Mulcahy’s pulling Xerox back from the brink, among others.

I’ve been lucky to work for clients who are more like Iacocca than Trump. Here’s hoping the recent rise in self-serving bias in attribution is a blip, not a trend.

I Tried Stand-Up, and Improved my Speeches

Many thanks to Vital Speeches of the Day editor David Murray, for publishing my piece on the lessons speechwriters can learn from the craft of stand-up comedy. In the article, I describe how–after years of fear of failure–I finally took the plunge and tried my hand at stand-up. Wisely, I took a course first, which was superb, taught by our wonderful teacher Chris Coccia, a Philadelphia comic. The big surprise was how much the class and the experience also taught me about speechwriting. You’ll find the complete post here.

China’s Speeches are on the Rise, too

Xi-JinpingThis summer I started working with a nonprofit CEO who regularly gives speeches outside the United States. My first assignment was to help with a presentation he will give this fall to a Chinese audience. (The speech will be given in English with simultaneous translation into Chinese).

As every good speechwriter should, I started the writing process by doing research. In particular, I decided to read speeches given by Chinese leaders, to get a sense of what Chinese audiences might have heard and might expect to hear.

To be honest, I was prepared to be pretty bored, based on past experience. Long, long ago I had studied Soviet and Eastern European politics, so I had read my fair share of speeches by Communist leaders. They were uniformly dull — long lists of exhortations to the masses and threats to the west, combined with long recitations of statistics “proving” that the Russian, East German, or Bulgarian workers were on the fast track to proletarian paradise.

Surprise!

The Chinese have apparently realized that leaders who give those kind of speeches get tossed on the trash heap of history. They’ve decided to do a lot better. Many of the speeches I read were pretty darn good. Some included key elements you’d expect from scripts written by top speech pros in the democratic west.

For example, take a look at a recent speech by President Xi to the National Committee on U.S.- China relations. Here’s what you’ll find:

  • The speech has been artfully tailored to a specific audience. President Xi spoke in Seattle. His first paragraph is all about that city and Washington state. He even references the film Sleepless in Seattle.
  • The speech ties the personal to policy. He’s not too personal, of course. But Xi does describe being a teenager who was sent from Beijing to work as a peasant in a small village… for seven years. He shares stories of how he and the villagers lived in caves and almost starved. Then he ties his story to the progress China has made and its commitment to development.
  • The speech is salted with quotes and humor (a little). The quotes (surprise) are mainly from “ancient Chinese sayings.” But he also quotes Henry Kissinger and Martin Luther King and there are a couple references to “the works of Henry David Thoreau, Walt Whitman, Mark Twain, and Jack London.” And he cites Hemingway to make a very mild mojito joke.

To be sure, that speech and others I read do include long laundry lists – of statistics, goals, accomplishments, etc. But it does seem that in speechwriting, as in so many other areas, the Chinese have no intention of lagging behind.

Back to School/Summer Round-up

pencil-918449_640If you’re an executive with an association, chamber of commerce, or other nonprofit, I highly recommend you check out the Institute for Organization Management, a program of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation. The Institute is designed to help leaders take their management skills to an even higher level, by offering a curriculum of courses and lively discussion at university campuses around the country.  Click here to learn more. I had the chance to teach a couple courses this summer (on communications and branding) at the Institute session at the University of Georgia. It was a wonderful experience for me, and I could see how much the attendees were learning and connecting.

I also got the chance this summer to work with Pete Weissman, a true thought leader himself who heads Thought Leader Communications. It was a bit like a graduate course on financial services, but with tighter deadlines.

In addition, with any luck, my drafted words will be heard for the first time ever by a Chinese audience this fall. In researching a presentation for a U.S CEO this summer, I learned some surprising things about speeches by China’s leaders, which I will share in a future post.

And finally, check one more item off the bucket list. I took a stand-up comedy class, and did a five minute set at The Improv here in DC. I was on the same stage where once stood everybody from Dave Chapelle to Jim Gaffigan. The biggest surprise was that I learned some lessons about speech writing, as well as about telling jokes. Stay tuned for those, too.

Learning from Great Commencement Speeches

microphoneI admit it, when it comes to the use of analytics, I’ve been a skeptic. I know the use of sophisticated statistical analysis has yielded important insights in many fields. But in some areas, like being a sports fan, it seemed to squeeze out the fun, and in other areas, like speechwriting, I was convinced it really didn’t have much of a useful role.

Well, I may have to give up some of my Luddite ways. Quantified Communications is doing really interesting work to (in their words) “combine data science and human expertise to improve the way people communicate.”

One blog post in particular caught my eye. QC used a proprietary analytical tool to see what CEO’s could learn from the 13 best commencement speeches of all time (as selected by Business Insider.) In particular, key characteristics of the commencement speeches were compared to important elements of the average executive keynote.

Every CEO and speechwriter for a CEO should pay heed to the findings.

First, the outstanding commencement speakers were much better at building trust through confident, authentic language than the average CEO. The commencement speeches came “across as 42% more authentic and 15% more confident.”

However, where the CEOs really lagged behind was in using “clear and engaging language to keep the audience’s attention.”  The great commencement speeches were a stunning 81% clearer and 86% more engaging than the average executive keynote.

Now, as someone who has heard and read a lot of executive presentations, I must say this finding doesn’t surprise me. I just hope these analytics will give communication pro’s ammunition they can use to encourage clients to do a lot more to build audience trust and engage listeners.