Why Do Most Speeches by Leaders Suck?

Christopher Witt —  May 12, 2014 — Leave a comment

Leaders don't have to speak poorly.A speech is—potentially—one of a leader’s most powerful tools. It can promote an initiative, a proposal, a vision. Gain the public’s attention, respect, and cooperation. Change the way people think, feel, and act.

In reality most speeches by leaders suck. They are a waste of time, an imposition on an audience’s goodwill, a public display of ineptitude.

We suffer through a leader’s speech, pretending to pay attention, because, well, we have to. They’re the boss. Or the resident guru. Or the thought leader du jour.

They may project an “executive presence,” and tick off a number of talking points. But if they have anything original, or insightful, or incisive to say, they bury it beneath a flurry of jargon, generalities, and non sequiturs.

Sometimes it’s hard to figure out what they’re even talking about. Do they have a point? If so, who cares?

But some leaders get it right. Their speeches win our hearts and minds, linger in our memories, and stir us to action. The clarity of their vision thrills us. Their insight makes us wiser. Their examples, stories, and bigheartedness inspire us.

Why do other leaders—the majority—get it so wrong?

For two very good reasons: they don’t know how to construct a speech and, even if they did, they don’t have the time. And for one not-so-good reason: they’ve bought into the prevailing myth that delivery trumps content, that how you present yourself has more impact that what you say.

Neither charisma not platform pyrotechnics can substitute for a lack of substance. It’s your message—one big idea, clearly developed, supported by evidence and logic, brought to life in story and metaphor—that matters.

There is an alternative, a process that busy people can use to create speeches that bring about a change:

  1. Identify your core messages.
    Leaders keep returning to three basic messages: identity (who we are, how and why we were founded, our heroes and our values), mission (what we do and why we do it, what makes us different, our services and products), and vision (the challenges and opportunities ahead, where we’re going and how we’re getting there).
  2. Create four building blocks.
    For each of your core messages identity one big idea, a personal story, evidence, and a call to action as freestanding elements that you can combine in any number of ways.
  3. Construct your speeches using those blocks.
    Repeat, recycle, and repurpose those building blocks into a variety of speeches. (No it’s not cheating. It’s the best use of your time and energy.)

There’s really no excuse at all for giving a speech that sucks. Better not to speak at all. Creating a powerful speech—which isn’t the same thing as presenting a lame speech powerfully—is doable.

 

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Christopher Witt

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Chris Witt was born in Los Angeles, California. He currently lives in San Diego. He works as a speech and presentations consultant, an executive speech coach, and an orals coach.

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