Few speech topics are more difficult to handle well than race in America. Audiences are polarized; it’s hard to avoid cliché’s and platitudes without setting off a fire storm; and choosing even a single wrong word can offend. This year, of course, giving a speech about race has become orders of magnitude more daunting because of the killings of African Americans by police, deadly attacks on law enforcement, and a presidential campaign tinged with charges of racism.
Last month, AT&T CEO Randall Stephenson stepped up to the challenge when he spoke in Dallas to his company’s convention of Employee Resource Groups. I thought he did a terrific job – offering some fresh thinking, heartfelt reflection and powerful ideas.
The speech also demonstrates once again how strong speech writing techniques can boost the impact of the spoken word. For example:
Storytelling. The core of the speech is the story of Stephenson’s close family friend Chris, an African American doctor who served in Iraq and Afghanistan. It’s a powerful recounting of the slurs, slights and injustice Chris had to endure throughout his life, simply because of the color of his skin.
Making it Personal. In addition to sharing the story of his close friend, Stephenson very frankly discussed his own ignorance of what it is like to be black in America, and how much he had to learn.
Surprise! I’m sure Stephenson surprised (and more likely shocked) a lot of people when he said, “Being tolerant is for cowards.” Yikes! And I’ll bet it made everyone in the audience pay attention to his explanation: people must go beyond passive tolerance and instead work hard to “move into uncertain territory,” establishing mutual understanding and respect.
A Call to Action. Stephenson called on more companies to launch tough decisions about race, and more leaders to speak forcefully against injustice. “If this is a dialogue that’s going to begin at AT&T,” he said, “I feel like it probably ought to start with me.”
Almost exactly a year ago, I wrote an article for Ragan.com, “Should you let your CEO go unscripted?.” It was prompted by the fact that one of the reasons Donald Trump was doing stunningly well was that his presentations were ad-libbed. As a result, a lot of pundits said, he was coming across as much more “genuine” and “authentic” than typical politicians.
I warned, however, that most CEO’s should NOT follow Trump’s example. Instead, they should work with a speechwriter and presentation coach to deliver prepared speeches in a convincing, natural sounding way.
Well, it turns out going unscripted doesn’t even work for Trump himself. Much of the recent analysis of the campaign has highlighted attempts by Trump’s team to keep him on message. They’ve even got him using a teleprompter during his presentations. And sure enough, he seemed to be doing his best and closing the gap with Hillary Clinton when he followed a disciplined approach.
Unfortunately for Trump, he returned to “off-the cuff” big time, starting with first Presidential debate. How the Washington Post described a recent speech tells it all.
Donald Trump’s campaign announced Saturday evening that the candidate would soon deliver a nine-sentence critique of comments Hillary Clinton made months ago about many of the millennials supporting her primary rival, Bernie Sanders… It didn’t work. It took Trump nearly 25 minutes to read the brief statement because he kept going off on one angry tangent after another — ignoring his teleprompters and accusing Clinton of not being “loyal” to her husband, imitating her buckling at a memorial service last month, suggesting that she is “crazy” and saying she should be in prison.
There is no doubt that eing genuine is now costing Trump votes, lots of votes.
Both politicians and CEOs should remember that those who live without a script can just as easily die that way, too.
In a recent blog post, Pete Weissman, award-winning speechwriter and speaker who is founder of Thought Leader Communications, uses an Onion headline to make a great point about CEO communication.
The headline: “Jim Caldwell Provides Lions Players with Printouts of Inspiring Halftime Speech.” Weissman notes that while using a printed speech to inspire a football team would be a ridiculously terrible idea, CEOs often do something almost as bad: they try to inspire by overloading their audience with information.
“[H]ow many times have you sat through a presentation where the speaker filled every inch of the PowerPoint slide with text and expected to somehow inspire you?” he asks. The answer, of course, is `way too often.’
To inspire, a CEO has got to go way beyond assembling facts and reciting statistics. To give a speech that fires up employees and staff, Weissman recommends CEOs start by asking themselves three questions:
Does my speech have a good balance between appealing to the head and appealing to the heart?
Will delivering this speech “rally the troops” much more than just handing them a printout of the text?
Does the conclusion of my speech lift up the audience’s spirits?
If the answers to these questions is “no,” the chances are better that your speech will wind up in The Onion than in Vital Speeches of the Day.
At the White House, even the most rudimentary speech is read by about a dozen people (if not more). This is also a terrible process for any writer since their words are invariably dumbed down by some political operative or second-guessed by some literal-minded lawyer, or rewritten by some staff person with a literary bent who has the great American novel in his desk drawer.
Matt Latimer, former speechwriter for President George W. Bush,
Politico, July 16, 2016
… the timeworn method of repeating a clear message can still, over time, change minds and then outcomes.
Jeff Shesol, Five Myths About Political Speechwriting, Washington Post, July 2016