What CEOs Should Learn From Commencement Speeches

Spring is my favorite part of the work year, because I really enjoy writing commencement speeches. Working on one last month, and thinking about what makes these speeches special, I realized that a good commencement address can do more than inspire graduates and their families. Commencement speeches can also teach most CEOs could learn a lot about public speaking from too. In particular:

Know Your Audience

The best commencement speeches are closely attuned to the concerns and interests of the audience. Good speakers not only connect with the graduating class but their parents and other loved ones, as well. In fact, the best speakers (or their writers) research the graduating class so they can highlight at least a couple of key events that happened during the school year.

CEO’s who want their speeches to have an impact should also take the time to learn what their audience is thinking. And, they should make sure key parts of their speech resonate with what’s on the minds of their listeners.

Make it Personal … and Funny

If you scroll through any list of best commencement speeches, you’ll find that the speakers shared personal details from their lives. Moreover, every one of them used humor — most of which was self-deprecating.

For CEOs, getting personal is a great way to connect with audiences, to show them you’re a human being just like they are. Granted, humor can be risky, but with a little work and practice, making gentle fun of yourself can be an effective way to get the audience on your side, too.

Inspire ‘Em

And in conclusion…. every, and I do mean every, good commencement speech ends with a bang! A rousing close that calls on the graduates to do great things, be the best they can be, refuse to let haters hold them back, and so on.

CEOs should remember that every audience wants to feel inspired at the end of a speech. Every corporate leader should try to end each speech with a vision for the company, a call to action for all employees, a dramatic new proposal for change, etc.

Try to be as inspiring at the best commencement speakers, and your speeches will get the results from the audiences most crucial to your success.

One More Thing About Oprah’s Speech…..

Sorry, I just couldn’t resist adding a couple hundred more words to the millions that already have been written about that speech.

I won’t add to the chorus of voices pointing out Oprah is a great presenter who spoke at a turning point in history. Instead, what knocked me out as a speechwriter was the script. In only a thousand words or so, the speech demonstrated the power of a whole bunch of the most important “Principles of Great Speechwriting.”

I’ve tweeted about several of them, but here I want to focus on one of my favorite speechwriting tips: “Start Strong or Die.”

Clearly, Oprah knows that—and how.

The Golden Globes speech began with a three word “thank you.” And then…

In 1964, I was a little girl sitting on the linoleum floor of my mother’s house in Milwaukee, watching Anne Bancroft present the Oscar for best actor at the 36th Academy Awards. She opened the envelope and said five words that literally made history: “The winner is Sidney Poitier.” Up to the stage came the most elegant man I had ever seen. I remember his tie was white and, of course, his skin was black. And I’d never seen a black man being celebrated like that.

Wow.

A personal memory, a great story with wonderful details (“his tie was white and…his skin was black.”) And a terrific introduction to the rousing themes of the speech.

So,  the next time you prepare to give a speech–or write one—take one more look at what Oprah said.

Executive Presence 2018

Executive presence is one of those terms that can mean a lot of different things, but I’ve always like the way John Beeson, principal of Beeson Consulting, defines it: “your ability to project mature self-confidence, a sense that you can take control of difficult, unpredictable situations; make tough decisions in a timely way and hold your own with other talented and strong-willed members of the executive team.”

In a column I wrote a while back for the Washington Business Journal, I explored with a couple of master executive coaches how executive presence is linked to public speaking. Late last year, Executive Coach Paul Geiger, author of Better Business Speech, offered some new perspective on the topic in an insightful CEOWORLD article.

His  “5 public Speaking Tips to Exude Executive Presence” are darn good. Two, in particular, stand out.

“Master the pause,” Geiger says. Terrific advice far too many executives ignore. “[T]he very best speakers know how to “play the silence in between.” … The interesting thing is that listeners really do pay attention to a deliberate gap in your spoken words. They perk up, anticipating what you’ll say next.”

In addition, Geiger counsels executives to “learn from the experts.”  When you know the leader you’re listening to has executive presence, watch closely what he or she does. Chances are you’ll observe several of the following characteristics:

  • Deliberate breathing
  • Full and varied gestures
  • Varied intonation (pitches are high and low, rhythms are fast and slow)
  • Purposeful and sweeping cadence
  • Appropriate eye contact
  • A clear, concise summation of the message (repeated often for emphasis)

Geiger’s article confirms that, while executive presence has many aspects, the key to projecting “mature self confidence” is the spoken word.

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.