Archives For Lead

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.

Use your gut instinctsOne of the best ways to improve your speaking is to learn from good speeches.

Over the years I’ve developed my own down-and-dirty methodology for evaluating speeches. There are more sophisticated ways to assess a speech’s merits, mind you. But this one works for me. It may work for you.

One caveat: I’m talking about how to analyze a speech for your own edification, not how to give someone else feedback about their speaking.

Step One: Trust Your Gut Instincts

Pay attention to your feelings during and immediately following a speech.

I’m talking about a simple appraisal of your visceral response that allows for only one of three possibilities:

  1. Love it!
  2. Hate it!
  3. Totally indifferent.

Or, put more simply, yay, nay, or bleh.

Don’t universalize your reactions. I’ve loved speeches that other people have hated. And people have raved about speeches that have left me cold. The same is probably true for you.

Be aware of your general emotional state. Sometimes our feelings have nothing to do with the speech itself. We may be in a foul mood to begin with—it happens—or preoccupied, depressed, or disengaged. In those cases, don’t blame the speaker.

Simply notice and accept your emotional reaction. Trust your feelings, your intuition, to provide useful information.

Continue Reading…

When giving a speech, business leaders today tend to choose one of two options: speaking from a written speech (a script) or from  a list of talking points.

The Plusses and Minuses of Speaking from a Written Speech or Script

A script for a speech is a written text: a word-for-word document that speakers read to their audiences.

On the plus side a script is carefully constructed. It has a beginning, middle, and end; a logical and persuasive flow; and the right balance of information, ideas, explanations, illustrations, and stories.

A script uses rhetorical devices—phrases and sentences that are both memorable and moving—to engage the audience’s hearts and minds.

And a written speech makes the speaker sound smart, articulate, leaderly. (Is leaderly even a word?)

On the minus side, writing a speech is time-consuming. It’s expensive, if you don’t write it yourself. And it’s difficult to get right. (Not many people have the training or experience needed to write one).

Also, few speakers have the ability to read a script without sounding stiff and overly formal.

The Plusses and Minuses of Speaking from Talking Points

Talking points are a list of the most important information and ideas—summarized in a phrase or short sentence—concerning the topic of the speech.

The biggest plus of talking points is efficiency. It takes several hours, sometimes many days, to write a speech. You can throw together a list of talking points in the morning and be ready to speak by lunchtime.

And when you speak from talking points, you sound, well, unscripted. Given todays political and cultural climate, audiences think they’re hearing the real you.

The main minus of relying on talking points is that, well, you should unscripted. Unless you’re an accomplished, articulate speaker, your speeches will sound like an ordinary, everyday conversation: rambling, unfocused, and lacking any clear direction.

What’s the alternative to speaking from a script or from talking points?

What if you don’t have the time to put into writing a speech but you want something more focused and purposeful than talking points?

I recommend using what I call “soft scripting.”

A soft script is hybrid. It has elements of a fully written script, but it looks like a list of talking points.

A soft script is a very detailed outline—maybe two pages long—with a very clear structure:

  • an introduction that captures people’s interest and gives an overview of what’s to come;
  • three to five main points that explain, substantiate, and illustrate the speech’s main idea; and
  • a conclusion that issues a call to and an impetus for action.

It captures in writing carefully crafted phrases and sentences that are meant to be spoken word for word.

A soft script takes more time to create than a list of talking points, but less time to write than a script. It makes speakers sound smart and spontaneous. And it presents a clear and persuasive argument without wasting time or an audience’s attention.

Can speeches provoke violence? In a word: yes.

The goal of a speech is to move people to action.

A speech may educate and inform, entertain and amuse audiences. But it does so as a means to an end. And that end is action.

The action inspired by a speech may be noble and ennobling.

Speeches have inspired people and nations to work on behalf of the abolition of slavery, women’s equality, the rights of labor, civil rights, resistance to tyranny, environmental protection, the peaceful resolution of disputes.

But the action inspired by a speech may be — and often has been — violent.

Speeches have roused audiences — en masse or as individuals — to riot, to rampage, to lynch, to bomb, to burn, to assault.

To provoke violence — either immediate and specific violence, or unspecified violence — a speech has to do three things:

  1. Demonize “Them”
    Violent-provoking speeches always identify an enemy: the cause of our suffering, the source of all that is wrong with this world. “They” are different from us: of a different race or ethnicity, religion, gender, or sexual orientation. They are threatening our way of life, our jobs, our rights and prerogatives.
  2. Rouse Passion
    Violent-provoking speeches justify and inflame an audience’s anger, rage, and resentment. Reason and logic incline people to think more than to act; they are to be avoided. Passion moves people to action. And the more intense the passion, the greater the potential for violence.
  3. Justify Violence
    Violent-provoking speeches make violence reasonable and righteous. “They” have attacked us and all that we hold dear. We are the victims. We have the right — even the obligation — to fight back.

To deny that speeches can provoke violence, you have to deny the evidence of history, all the times that speeches have directly and indirectly roused audiences to violence.

And to deny that speeches can provoke violence, you have to deny that they can set people to work for a worthy cause.

On a related but separate issue, you might want to read Is Violent Speech a Right?

How Leaders SpeakLeaders give speeches all the time. They speak to promote their organization’s vision and mission. They speak when the stakes are high, in times of crisis and great opportunity.

Public speaking skills and leadership skills go hand in hand.

See also Leadership Speeches.

Tips for Leaders Who Want to Improve their Public Speaking

1. Take a Stand

Take a stand literally. Plant your feet squarely and solidly, balancing your weight evenly on both feet. Move with a purpose, not simply to pace. And take a stand figuratively. Don’t be neutral or disinterested. Stake out a position and make your best, your strongest case for it.

2. Keep it Short, Simple, and Strong

Brevity in a speech is always a good thing. It’ll help you hold your audience’s attention, and it will force you to focus on what matters most, eliminating all fluff. Simple is good, too, because it aids clarity and understanding. And strength is a sign of confidence and inspires confidence.

3. Be Big

Who you are — your character, reputation, values, vision — shapes how the audience hears and interprets what you say. So don’t hide off to the side of the stage in semi-darkness. Don’t cede center stage to a PowerPoint presentation. Demand people’s attention. Be yourself — your best self. And make your gestures bigger than usual.

4. Pause

One of the best ways to gain people’s attention while giving a speech is, paradoxically, to be silent. As you begin, take your place on the stage. Arrange the microphone and your notes, if you’re using them. Look up. Look people in the eye. And take a breath. Pause. When people settle down and return your eye contact, then and only then begin speaking. Frame your most important points with a brief pause.

5. Tell a Story

Avoid those cutesy teaching stories you find in books or on the Internet, stories that everyone has heard, stories that have an obvious moral. Tell, instead, a story from your own life, or a story about someone you know and admire. If it’s not meaningful and fresh to you, it won’t touch your audience.

See The Importance of Stories in a Speech.

What tips would you add about public speaking skills for leaders?

 

What Is a Demagogue?

Christopher Witt —  November 24, 2015 — Leave a comment

What is a demagogue?In ancient Greece a demagogue was a leader who championed the rights of the common people.

Today we think of a demagogue as a speaker who whips up people’s fears and anger, plays to their prejudices, and makes false claims and promises.

(Unfortunately, we have too many examples of demagogues both here in the U.S. and in Europe.)

In times of crisis and turmoil demagogues play an important, although not necessarily salutary, role.

  1. Demagogues define “us,” our identity, values, and basic beliefs.

They affirm who and what “we” are, primarily by distinguishing us from “them.” Demagogues do not fault us in any way, except perhaps for doubting ourselves and our unique destiny. We are the good people, common folk who are just trying to live our lives decently and in peace. But we and our way of life are under attack.

  1. Demagogues identify “them,” the cause of all our troubles.

“They” are, first of all, not us. They don’t look like us. They don’t act like us. They don’t believe like us. They are women; ethnic, racial, or religious minorities; immigrants; and gays. They say they want equality, but what they really want is what we have—our rights, prerogatives, and privileged status—and they are taking them from us. They are evil.

  1. Demagogues personify and praise strength.

We are, they say, at war. It may be a war of ideas and values or an armed conflict. But it a war nonetheless. They started it, but we will finish it, using any means necessary. Because of our overwhelming strength and the rightness of our cause, we will be victorious as long as we remain resolute. Weakness, hesitation, uncertainty on our part play into their hands, the hands of the enemy. What we need now more than ever is a strong leader. Better to be strong and wrong than weak and right.

  1. Demagogues advocate violence.

    Their speeches are verbally violent: laced with insults and put-downs, ethnic and racial slurs, and demeaning stereotypes. They spew lies and half-truths. They shout down opponents. They assure us that it fitting and proper—sometimes even sanctioned by God—to attack those who threaten us and our way of life.
  2. Demagogues pander to their audiences.

Demagogues look and sound strong. They get credit for saying what others are too timid or “politically correct” to say. But their message lacks substance. It offers no new insights, nothing that can stand up to logic or reason. They merely voice the worst fears, the sense of loss, and the rage felt by a certain segment of society. They repeat, reinforce, and amplify people’s established prejudices. They tell their audiences only what they want to hear.

We ignore demagogues at our own peril. Although they ultimately flame out, they can cause a great deal of damage before doing so.

And we would be wise to pay attention to their followers, to listen to their sense of alienation and loss and rage. It would be too easy, otherwise, to make them the new “them,” the cause of all society’s ills.

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