Archive for the ‘CEO speeches’ Category

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.


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.

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.


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.