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Don't confuse your audienceOne of the cardinal rules of public speaking is Never Confuse Your Audience.

There are a number of reasons why you shouldn’t confuse your audience.

First, if you confuse an audience, you lose them.

People will do their best — for a while, at least — to follow your logic, to ferret out your main point, to understand what you’re getting at.

But when they can’t make sense of what you’re saying, they’ll tune you out. They’ll stop listening. And you’ll have to do something dramatic to win back their attention.

Second, if you confuse an audience, you risk making them mad.

They’ll resent you for making them feel stupid or for wasting their time. And then there’s almost nothing you can do to win back their goodwill.

Third, if you confuse an audience, they’ll oppose you and whatever you’re proposing.

When you lose their attention and their goodwill, you lose their respect as well as their willingness to cooperate with you.

Fourth, if you confuse an audience unintentionally, you’re inept, but if you confuse them intentionally, you’re ethically challenged.

But intentionally confusing an audience can be an effective rhetorical strategy.

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Peggy Noonan's bookIn her excellent book, On Speaking Well, Peggy Noonan states,

“No speech is big without big policy to talk about. Trying to write a great speech without having great policy to work with, to assert and argue for, would be like trying to write a great play about nothing.”

In my book, Real Leaders Don’t Do PowerPoint, I assert, Picture of book

“A speech develops one idea. But it’s got to be a good idea–a policy, a direction, an insight, a prescription. Something that provides clarity and meaning, something that’s both intellectually and emotionally engaging. It’s got to be what I call a Big Idea.”

The speech by Mitch Landrieu, the mayor of New Orleans, explaining why the city was removing statues commemorating its Confederate past is a recent example of a big speech developing a big policy (in Noonan’s words) or a great speech developing a big idea (in my words).

Less recent but even more powerful examples of speeches (from American history) that advanced and advocated big ideas include Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address and his Second Inaugural Address, Kennedy’s Inaugural Address, Johnson’s Voting Rights Act Address, and Martin Luther King’s I Have a Dream Speech.

I still agree with everything I wrote about a speech needing a “Big Idea.”

But I now add the word juicy.

John Lemieux

Juicy–in surfer jargon–describes a wave that has power and speed and a clean face. It can lift and propel you forward.

(The opposite of juicy is mushy, a description of a wave that passes you by, no matter how large it is, without moving you along.)

A great speech promotes an idea that is both big (broad and deep in its implications) and juicy (capable of moving people to action).

That’s because the goal of a speech is always the same: action, action, action.

 

Photo used with permission by John Lemieux at Flickr.

 

It’s impossible to be neutral while evaluating a speech, especially a political speech.

A speech doesn’t simply report facts or make an objective assessment of things as they are.

A speech expresses the speaker’s values, vision, character.

Any speech worth listening to takes a stand. It develops an idea. It promotes an agenda.

A speech, if it is to have any impact at all, provokes a response from the audience. Consent or dissent. Cooperation or opposition. Support or resistance.

And that’s how it should be.

A speech shouldn’t be neutral.

It’s true for political speeches. And it’s true for corporate speeches.

(One of the reasons why so many corporate speeches are bland, boring, and instantly forgettable is because business speakers try so hard to avoid controversy of any sort.)

And people’s reactions to a speech reveal their values, vision, character.

For example, I think the speech by Mitch Landrieu, the mayor of New Orleans, explaining why the city was removing the city’s Confederate monuments, is one of the best political speeches I’ve heard in months.

I found it thoughtful, courageous, and morally exigent.

Landrieu’s speech was well written. It asserted a thesis and defended it with logic, evidence, and passion. It employed several powerful rhetorical devices. It was clear, without being simplistic.

And it was well delivered.

I like Landrieu’s speech not simply because he articulated my beliefs and values, but also because he expanded my moral vision.

You know from his speech exactly where Landrieu stands on race. And the fact that I consider it such a good speech says a lot about where I stand on race as well.

In a similar vein, I hated President Trump’s speech, announcing his decision to withdraw the United States from the Paris agreement on climate change. And, again, my reaction reveals my values. As it should.

CharismaIn public speaking and leadership development circles, the phrase “executive presence” is all the rage. But what is it? And does it matter?

No one quite agrees on what executive presence means.

It’s been called “the wow factor,” which merely substitutes one ill-defined concept for another.

It’s been likened to gravitas, charisma, and dynamism, which are equally fuzzy concepts.

It’s assumed that you’ll recognize it when you see it.

People with executive presence are described as having the ability to

  • Quickly gain people’s attention and respect
  • Exude confidence, poise, and calm under fire
  • Influence and inspire others as much by who they are as by what they  say and do

Everyone agrees that executive presence is a desirable quality in a leader.

And every leader or inspiring leaders wants it.

Forbes cites a study that concludes “executive presence counts for 26% of what it takes to get promoted.”

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The first commitment when giving a speech is to tell the truth. Maybe not the truth in its entirety or a big, world-transforming truth. Maybe just the truth as we know it.

Of course, this rule has been violated throughout history.

In every age, people have mounted podiums and pulpits to spread lies, misinformation, and half-truths. They’ve done so to justify unjust wars, to provoke religious intolerance, to promote discrimination and oppression, to rouse the masses to unthinking violence, to condone unconscionable acts.

Sadly, all too many leaders today — in politics, religion, business — show a less than whole-hearted commitment to the truth.

The disregard of truth in public speaking seems to have gotten worse these days. When confronted with irrefutable facts that contradict their assertions, there are those who simply shrug it off or — worse — double down on what they’ve said as if repeating an error makes it right.

Deceit in public discourse harms both the speaker and the audience and — in the long run — harms public speaking itself.

All the more reason, in my opinion, to speak the truth. To get the facts right. To use reason and logic in piecing together an argument. To choose our words with care, seeking clarity and accuracy. To value being right over winning.

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.

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