Posts Tagged ‘CEO speeches’

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.

Surprise!

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.

Learning from Great Commencement Speeches

microphoneI admit it, when it comes to the use of analytics, I’ve been a skeptic. I know the use of sophisticated statistical analysis has yielded important insights in many fields. But in some areas, like being a sports fan, it seemed to squeeze out the fun, and in other areas, like speechwriting, I was convinced it really didn’t have much of a useful role.

Well, I may have to give up some of my Luddite ways. Quantified Communications is doing really interesting work to (in their words) “combine data science and human expertise to improve the way people communicate.”

One blog post in particular caught my eye. QC used a proprietary analytical tool to see what CEO’s could learn from the 13 best commencement speeches of all time (as selected by Business Insider.) In particular, key characteristics of the commencement speeches were compared to important elements of the average executive keynote.

Every CEO and speechwriter for a CEO should pay heed to the findings.

First, the outstanding commencement speakers were much better at building trust through confident, authentic language than the average CEO. The commencement speeches came “across as 42% more authentic and 15% more confident.”

However, where the CEOs really lagged behind was in using “clear and engaging language to keep the audience’s attention.”  The great commencement speeches were a stunning 81% clearer and 86% more engaging than the average executive keynote.

Now, as someone who has heard and read a lot of executive presentations, I must say this finding doesn’t surprise me. I just hope these analytics will give communication pro’s ammunition they can use to encourage clients to do a lot more to build audience trust and engage listeners.

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.”