In a recent blog post, Richard Branson — head of Virgin and possibly the coolest CEO in the world — shares a great story about the first time he gave a speech.
It did not go well: “My mind went blank..I mumbled incoherently for a bit before leaving the podium. It was one of the most embarrassing moments of my life…”
Undaunted, he kept at it. “What I soon learned was that practice made all the difference. The more prepared I was, the less I stammered and stumbled. Good speakers aren’t just talented or lucky — they work hard.”
And he discovered something else — the power of authenticity. “If you speak with conviction and you’re passionate about your subject,” he says, “Your audience will be far more forgiving of your mistakes because they’ll have faith that you are telling the truth.”
Since I almost always advise executives to “use fewer statistics and tell more stories,” I’m often asked what makes a good story. Fair question. To answer it, I’ve decided to steal from one of the best, Amy Saidman, Artistic Executive Director at SpeakeasyDC. She gave a great presentation at NSA-DC recently. To paraphrase her a bit, she said the key elements of a story are:
- Inciting Incident (What event, action throws the speaker’s life out of balance?)
- Desire (What’s at stake?)
- Rising Action (Obstacles that stand in the way, actions taken to overcome them)
- Climax (What choice did the speaker make?)
- Resolution (what broader conclusion did the speaker draw from the story?)
She also stressed one other element, which I think is critically important: use vivid language that paints a picture. The more details you can mention that help an audience visualize the story, the better.
President Obama’s recent “speech to the Israeli people” in Jerusalem has rightly been lauded as a masterful blend of rhetoric and policy. Every executive who gives speeches can learn a lot from it. One important lesson is how to creatively establish a personal connection with your audience.
Before I read it, I wondered how the President, an African American, a non-Jew who grew up in Hawaii, would establish a personal bond with Israelis, especially during the Passover season. In particular, I wondered if he and his speechwriters could pull it off without sounding phony or patronizing.
Did they ever!
First, he connected his family to the traditional Passover meal: After enjoying Seders with family and friends in Chicago and on the campaign trail, I’m proud that I’ve now brought this tradition into the White House. I did so because I wanted my daughters to experience the Haggadah, and the story at the center of Passover that makes this time of year so powerful.
Then he established a strong link between his childhood and the Passover story: To African Americans, the story of the Exodus was perhaps the central story, the most powerful image about emerging from the grip of bondage to reach for liberty and human dignity — a tale that was carried from slavery through the Civil Rights Movement into today….For me, personally, growing up in far-flung parts of the world and without firm roots, the story spoke to a yearning within every human being for a home.
You may have heard of Seth Godin...Of course you have, he’s like the most famous marketing guru/blogger/writer around.
Check out his recent post, “With a Sure Hand.” He makes an interesting connection between successful speeches, graphic design and even well-designed tools. The secret sauce: confidence. He makes clear he’s not talking about arrogance, but about the willingness to seize the moment, and step forward “without hiding.”
He doesn’t discuss how a speaker gets that kind of confidence, but I think it’s a product of at least a couple things. First, the speech you give should be authentic. That is, it should reflect who you are, and what you really believe, not just your best guess at what the audience wants to hear. Second, you’ve got to practice the speech until you feel you own your words. Sad to say, many executives neglect the former and don’t have time for the latter.
The folks at Widmeyer Communications (“a fiercely independent PR firm” ) were nice enough to invite me to share my thoughts on what leaders can learn from State of the Union speeches.
Lesson #1: Don’t present a laundry list of programs, develop a vision.
You’ll find the rest of my lessons for leaders here.