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DNA of a SpeechA great speech isn’t about you.

A great speech is about your audience and how your idea or information can help them.

But who you are–your outlook, beliefs, values, interests, temperament–determines every thought, every image, every word, every tone and nuance of the speech you give.

And that’s how it should be.

A great speech is not and never should be impersonal, detached, objective.

A great speech is highly personal, it takes a stand, and it is as true as you can make it.

If anyone else could say exactly what you have to say about a particular subject, you’re doing something wrong.

Photo courtesy of Caroline Davis at flickr.com.

Leaders Speak too OftenA speech is one of the most powerful ways for leaders to advance their organization’s success.

Leaders give a lot of speeches, presentations, informal talks, and interviews. Sometimes they speak too often and, as a result, dilute their message.

The speeches that leaders give should align with their three primary responsibilities:

1)      To Advance the Mission, Vision, and Values of their Organization

Leaders help their organization formulate, promote, and achieve their mission (what we do/hope to accomplish), vision (where we are headed), and values (the principles and ethical standards that inform what we do).

2)      To Promote the Vitality of their Organization

Leaders tend to the internal workings of their organization to promote its ongoing health. They know that focusing exclusively on getting the work done can, ultimately, lead to the organizations’ dissolution.

3)      To Contribute to the Welfare of the Community/World at Large

Organizations thrive in the long run not only by doing well (achieving their goals), but also by doing good (benefiting their members, their customers/clients, and society/the environment).

Here’s the question leaders should ask when given the opportunity to speak:

Will this speech to this audience, at this time, in this venue promote my organization’s mission/vision/values, its vitality, and/or the community/world we live in?

Effective leaders know when to give a speech and, just as importantly, when not to give one.  

Tell the truth in a speechIt’s hard for me to write about public speaking in the age of Donald Trump, as if speeches matter.

I believe that the two most important elements of a speech are 1) the speaker’s goodwill and integrity, and 2) a message that is supported by evidence and reasoning, that is wise and beneficial to the audience.

And yet Trump’s rhetoric—lacking in both of these elements—has proven successful.

It seems revolutionary these days to suggest that leaders, in preparing and delivering a speech, should be concerned about—passionately committed to—speaking the truth.

Because the truth is rarely plain and never simple, speaking the truth requires thoughtfulness and discrimination.

Speaking the Truth in a Speech

First, examine the evidence.

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persuasionWe can’t reason people out of beliefs, opinions, judgments, prejudices, and behaviors that they didn’t reason themselves into.

We can’t change people’s ways of thinking and acting simply by giving them new information and leading them step by step through a logical process of analysis and understanding.

We can’t, in short, persuade people to change by logic and reasoning.

There are two main reasons for this.

First, we form our basic beliefs and behavior patterns as children, when our ability to reason is underdeveloped, if not entirely lacking. For the most part we adopt, without thinking, the beliefs and behaviors of those around us.

When we question our beliefs and behaviors later in life—if we question them at all—we’re still inclined to give them credence. Reinforced by habit, they “feel” right, natural, proper.

And second, we aren’t rational beings. At least, rationality isn’t our primary way of understanding and relating to the world.

The process of reasoning—gathering and assessing information, questioning assumptions, forming opinions, analyzing them and revising them when necessary—doesn’t come naturally to us. It’s a skill we have to learn.

Reasoning takes time and effort. And in a world that comes at us like a Mack truck, at a thousand miles an hour, with horns blaring, demanding an immediate response, we tend not to reflect but to react.

We don’t say, “Whoa, hold your horses. Give me some time to think this through.” We don’t, in short, reason our way through each new situation. We fall back on our tried and true ways of understanding the world and of coping with its incessant and clamorous demands.

I’m not arguing in favor of abandoning reason and logic.

I am proposing that if persuasion is our goal—if we want to change how people think and feel and act—we have to develop strategies and techniques that build on something more than reason and logic.

The question, of course, is how? Any suggestions?

persuasionThe US presidential campaign dragged on seemingly forever. And it was–even by political standards–ugly, dirty, and mean spirited. I’m glad it’s over.

I wish I could draw some positive lessons about public speaking and persuasion from either of the candidate’s speeches, but I can’t. I was largely uninspired by Clinton’s speeches. I was appalled by Trump’s rhetoric.

What concerns me most–as a citizen and, more specifically, as a speechwriter–is how frequently and effortlessly misinformation, distortions, and flat-out lies were asserted, only to be refuted (by those pesky little fact checkers) and then repeated.

It’s no surprise that the Oxford English Dictionary selected post-truth as the international word of the year for 2016.

Post-truth: relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.

“Appeals to emotion and personal belief” have always played a key role in persuasive public speaking. Over 2,500 years ago Aristotle identified three proofs of a persuasive speech:

  1. Ethos: The character and knowledge of the speaker
  2. Pathos: Appeals to the audience’s emotions, interests, and imagination
  3. Logos: The clarity of the message’s logic and the evidence put forth to support it

In this recent election pathos was the clear winner. Ethos and logos were almost nowhere to be found.

In future posts I’ll examine why pathos was so dominant. I’ll draw some lessons about the use of pathos in public speaking and persuasion. And I’ll point out why in non-political arenas pathos, divorced from ethos and logos, is not only ineffective, but calamitous.

What makes a speech bad?A bad speech can be bad in two ways.

It all depends on how you define bad.

Bad can mean of inferior quality, or defective, failing to measure up to standards, unpleasing, or unable to perform as required.

Think of a bad wine, or a bad movie, or a bad performance.

A bad speech, using this definition of bad, is ineffective. It fails to accomplish its objective.

A speech can be bad for any number of reasons:

  • It lacks unity and cohesion.
  • It fails to address the needs and concerns of the audience.
  • It is confusing, illogical, or boring.
  • It relies on poorly designed visual aids or fails to use them when appropriate.
  • It is poorly staged and delivered.

Bad can also mean morally deficient, repugnant, evil, wrong.

We often shy away from using bad in this sense, afraid of sounding judgmental or ceding the term to preachers and pundits who see evil everywhere they look.

But I think that some ideas—many ideas—are bad and deserve to be labelled as such.

If an idea can be bad—immoral, reprehensible, worthy of censure—a speech that advocates it is, by extension, bad.

I hate to go there, but Hitler is the best example of what I mean.

His speeches were good in the sense that they achieved their objective. And they were bad—demonstratively and monstrously evil—because the ideas they advocated so effectively were bad.

To judge a speech in this sense—to weight its moral worth—requires us to clarify our values and the way we determine right and wrong.

When I think of a bad speech, in this sense, I think of one that distorts the truth, plays on an audience’s prejudices, focuses their attention on trivialities, justifies injustice, and targets the weak and vulnerable.

What do you think makes a bad speech bad?

Bring about changeWhen speaking to promote change, resist the urge to attack the status quo or its supporters.

The only reason to give a speech is to promote change of some sort: a change in how people think or feel or, more importantly, act.

If you’re happy with the status quo and you want people to keep on doing what they’ve been doing, don’t give a speech. Throw a party.

The underlying message of a speech promoting change always comes down to this: the new vision, initiative, product, service, behavior you’re proposing is better that what already exists.

How do you talk down the status quo without belittling those who had a part in bringing it about or who have a stake in maintaining it?

(When the status quo is clearly unjust, cruel, or oppressive, it may be honorable and brave to confront head on those who created and seek to perpetuate it.)

But in most cases assailing the supporters of the status turns them into opponents and hardens their resistance.

Do this instead. Demonstrate how the current problems or deficiencies–the status quo you wish to change–are rooted not in past mistakes but in subsequent changes.

Don’t say, “We’re having problems in the finance department because my predecessor [the current CFO] purchased an inferior accounting software program.”

Say something like, “When we purchased our current accounting software, it was highly rated. But in the intervening years, technological advances and our increasingly complex requirements have made it inadequate for our needs.”

Make it your goal to bring about the change you believe in, not to denigrate the status quo or vilify its supporters.

the person of the speakerThe four elements of a great speech, according to Demosthenes–the greatest of ancient Greek orators–are:

  1. A great person
  2. A noteworthy event
  3. A compelling message
  4. A masterful delivery

In my opinion, the person giving the speech is what matters most.

This is becoming increasingly clear as the presidential primary season plays out here in the United States, and as attention is being given more to the candidates than to their message

To take the most obvious example, whatever is reported, discussed, or analyzed about Donald Trump, positively or negatively, has more to do with his character than with what he says he will do, if elected.

The person giving the speech has, for better or worse, taken center stage.

That’s why character matters so much.

By character, I don’t mean a person’s ego, personality, image, or–gag me–personal brand.

Character, to my way of thinking, involves a person’s long-established, deeply rooted values, integrity, experience, knowledge, compassion, and wisdom.

To be a great person, in Demosthenes’s understanding (and in mine), doesn’t involve status, or wealth, or renown. A great person is one whose virtues contribute to the welfare of others.

PS I build my book, Real Leaders Don’t Do PowerPoint (Crown Publishing) around Demosthenes’s four elements of a great speech.

Photo courtesy of Death to The Stock Photo.

complex speechAll speeches have to be clear.

If you confuse an audience, they tune you out. They may even turn on you, angry at you for wasting their time or making them think harder than they want to.

One way to make a speech clear is to keep it simple. Reduce the scope or complexity of the idea you’re presenting, and focus on a single feature or aspect of it.

The problem is, although simplicity can facilitate clarity, it can also dumb down an otherwise smart idea.

Some ideas—some of the most insightful and incisive ideas—are by nature complex. And if you simplify their complexity in an effort to make them clear, you’re doing a disservice both to your ideas and to your audience.

Don’t confuse “complex” with “complicated.”

Something is complex if it is composed of many interconnected parts.

Complicated is something else altogether. Complicated means “difficult to analyze, understand, or explain.”

I’m in favor of complex speeches, not complicated ones.

If your idea is complicated, you’d be better off writing a research paper or a white paper or a formal proposal. Written pieces give people time to digest what they’re reading, to pause when needed, to refer back to a previous point, to look something up, to think about one point before moving on to the next. None of that is possible in a speech.

Complex speeches don’t have to be complicated. They can be quite clear, even elegantly clear. It’s a matter of identifying the various pieces of the idea and arranging them in a logical fashion.

If you are yourself simpleminded or if you think your audience is, then by all means eliminate all complexity.

That’s what most people running for political office are doing these days. They’re taking complex issues, involving problems that have stumped people for years, and proposing a simple, one-size-fits-all solution.

Here’s the real issue. The simplicity or complexity of your speech should be determined by the idea itself. If the idea is simple, make your speech simple. If it’s complex—yay for you!—make your speech complex.

Either way, make sure it’s clear.

Check out How to Plan a Speech.

 

Political rhetoric has become ugly, stupid, and brutish.

We can, of course, blame the politicians. Some more than others.

But politicians only say what they’re saying because people turn out to hear them, applaud them, support them, give them money, vote for them.

I grieve over the sorry state of political rhetoric. But I worry more about what our willingness to tolerate it, even celebrate it, says about the kind of people we have become.

Is this what we want? Is rage our only response to loss, change, and injustice? Is greatness to be found only in strength and the willingness to use violence to get what we want? What good do we expect to come from contempt, divisiveness, and bigotry?

I don’t know if, as people say, we get the kind of leaders that we deserve. But I believe that we get the kind of speakers and speeches that we’re willing to listen to.

One way — not the only way, but one way — to change the nature of political rhetoric is to change our response to it: to be a kinder, wiser, more discerning audience.

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