Adventures in Leadership

adventure-bookI can say for certain that I’ve never before written a post about somebody who has spent twenty years crisscrossing the continents to climb the world’s highest mountains. Seattle’s Matt Walker has done just that, but what makes him of interest to “The CEO at the Mic,” is the insight he gained at 24,000 feet during one moonlight in the Himalayas: that the essence of adventure could be a powerful tool to connect people with their leadership potential.

Now Matt helps people make that connection, strengthening their leadership qualities through keynotes, workshops, and team building adventure exercises. On his blog he also profiles experts who could be helpful to leaders looking to step up their game. Recently he was kind enough to include me. The interview was a great experience, and I think you’ll find it useful.

Here’s a preview:

Okay… is it really possible to improve a speech simply by using different words?

Absolutely. Speechwriting is writing for the ear. That is much different than writing for the eye, which is what you do when you produce an article or an annual report.

The complete interview is here.

My thanks to Matt.

“But That’s the Most Important Part of the Draft”

script editWhen you reach a certain level of experience as a speechwriter, and your hair turns a certain shade of grey, people new to the profession seek you out for advice. One of the most important, and challenging, questions I get is “What do you do when you’ve written a great script and the client makes changes that really weaken the draft?”

I usually respond with a long winded discussion of diplomacy in the workplace, the duties of a professional, the consultant/client balancing act, etc.

From now on, I’ll just refer all tyros to a terrific blog post by Mike Long, veteran speechwriter, author, educator, and award-winning screenwriter and playwright. (You can find it on his blog and on Vital Speeches of the Day.)

The whole piece is spot on, and the last full paragraph should be part of the Official Speechwriter’s Creed:

When requests for changes come back, accept or argue against them according to structure, substance, and taste. To hold onto your satisfaction with the work, consider any changes to be carpentry – customization of an already excellent product provided to get the paycheck. Cling to that first version as the evidence of your talent, and take your pleasure from having written something so good, even if it never escapes your hard drive and your client’s harsh opinion.

I would only add that it also helps to reserve part of your time for your own writing. Give speeches; do freelance articles;  or get creative with that novel, poem, or screenplay. As long as the writing is yours alone, it will help keep you happy…and sane.

“What kind of people are they working for?”

Vital Speeches' David Murray

Vital Speeches’ David Murray

David Murray’s official titles include Editor, Vital Speeches of the Day and Vital Speeches International, as well as Executive Director of the Professional Speechwriters Association. But for me, his most important role has been as the kind of observer and critic every profession needs – offering good humored but pointed praise, prods, advice and critiques of the work we scriptwriters-for-others do.

While I was working with a client who was hesitant to begin giving speeches to employees, I stumbled across a blog post David did a while back, modestly titled Murray’s Manifesto.

What exactly, Murray asked, do employees want to know from their top executives?
Murray made his answer pretty darned clear.

“They want to know what kind of people they are working for.
Let me repeat: They want to know what kind of people they are working for.
That’s all they want to know: What kind of people they are working for.”

In particular, they want to know how smart their leaders are, how honest, empathetic, forward looking, and committed to their employees.

The challenge, of course, is that it is not enough for top executives simply to have these qualities, they must also convince key audiences that they do.

Which brings me back to one of my all-time favorite quotes, which I trot out at least once a year. It’s from Mike Daniels, the former chairman and chief executive of Network Solutions who sits on the board of directors of CACI International and many other technology companies.

“It’s remarkable,” Daniels said. “If you have two growth companies headed by equally smart guys, where one can deliver an enthusiastic speech, lay out the mission of the company and encourage people to work smarter and harder and the other can’t…it makes a world of difference to the success of the company.”

Speaking vs. Talking: Lessons for CEOs

82097_the-battlestar-galactica-presidential-podiumAs expected, President Trump’s inauguration speech was followed by an avalanche of analysis from former presidential speechwriters and other pundits. For CEO’s and their speechwriters, one of the most interesting pieces was a New York Times OpEd by John McWhorter, an associate professor of English and comparative literature at Columbia.

McWhorter pointed out that Trump communicates at the podium by “talking” rather than “speaking.” That is, in his speeches “Mr. Trump talks the way any number of people would over drinks.”

This conversational, informal approach to speeches certainly worked for candidate Trump. “Mr. Trump’s come-as-you-are speaking style was part of his appeal, making the scion of a wealthy New York family seem relatable to someone in the rural Plains,” McWhorter argued.

It’s far too early to predict whether the new president’s “talking” style will work from the White House bully pulpit. But should corporate and nonprofit CEO’s try shifting from speaking to talking?

The short answer, based on my experience, is… “It depends.” The chat-with-folks-the-way-you-would-in-a-bar approach can work well on some occasions, especially when introducing speakers, or presenting awards. But when a leader is articulating a vision, or making an argument for change, it’s critically important to be clear and concise and–above all–inspiring.

For most CEO’s, I’ve found the best way to do that is to start with a prepared script. Without one, CEO’s can be tempted to go off on tangents, losing the audience’s attention (and even respect).

However, even though I write speeches for a living, I know all too well that a prepared script is not a guarantee of success. A leader who glumly recites his or her text can lose the audience just as quickly as the leader who goes off on tangents.

That’s why I strongly recommend CEO’s work with a writer to develop a strong script, and work with a speech coach to practice ways to deliver that speech naturally and persuasively.

 

 

Inauguration Speech Advice Part 2: Learn from the Best

trump podiumAs I noted in an earlier post, I’m quite sure that Donald Trump’s speechwriting team will NOT be turning to me for advice about the inauguration, but … what the heck?

A few weeks ago, I suggested that DJT’s writers learn from the worst: Don’t channel Warren G. Harding!

I hereby conclude my free advice by suggesting the President-elect also learn from the best. And the inaugural speech I have in mind is not by an American president – but by Nelson Mandela.

Now, before steam rises from your ears and your fingers leap to the keyboard to protest, let me be clear: I am acutely aware that there well may be no two people more different in personal history, character, judgement, and values than Mandela and Trump. (That’s right, you just saw “Mandela” and “Trump” in the same sentence.)

Still, I think our new president could (and certainly should) learn a lot from the words of South Africa’s first black president.

Mandela spoke after an historic, decades long struggle for freedom that took many lives, cost Mandela and thousands of others their freedom, and left his nation bitterly divided. His inauguration speech is an extraordinary message of reconciliation and human dignity.

Almost 25 years later, it still inspires and uplifts. Here are just a few samples

  • To my compatriots, I have no hesitation in saying that each one of us is as intimately attached to the soil of this beautiful country as are the famous jacaranda trees of Pretoria and the mimosa trees of the bushveld….
  •  Each time one of us touches the soil of this land, we feel a sense of personal renewal. The national mood changes as the seasons change….
  •  The time for the healing of the wounds has come.
  • The moment to bridge the chasms that divide us has come.
  • The time to build is upon us……
  • We have triumphed in the effort to implant hope in the breasts of the millions of our people. We enter into a covenant that we shall build the society in which all South Africans, both black and white, will be able to walk tall, without any fear in their hearts, assured of their inalienable right to human dignity – a rainbow nation at peace with itself and the world…

Of course, America 2017 is radically different than 1994 South Africa. Still, we have gone through an extraordinarily divisive election, and our political system is more polarized than I can remember. If President Trump wants to set a new tone, he could start on inauguration day…by following the example of President Mandela.