A 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.
President Obama’s speech to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the march on Selma is the clearest recent example of a leader explicitly defining his moral vision that I know of.
In an earlier post I defined a moral vision as “sense of what matters and is meaningful, of what has value and worth, of what deserves respect and attention.”
And I claimed that leaders communicate their moral vision – implicitly or explicitly – every time they give a speech.
Not everyone would agree with Obama’s moral vision. Many would – and do – vehemently disagree.
But that’s what makes Obama’s speech a refreshing counterpoint to the tepid posturing of many leaders: his willingness to take a stand.
There are three elements of a moral vision: 1) identity, 2) values, and 3) mission. And Obama addressed all three.
The Three Elements of a Leader’s Moral Vision
1. Identity: Who are we?
Obama’s speech is, in essence, a definition of what America means and of what it means to be an American.
“It [the Selma march] was not a clash of armies, but a clash of wills: a contest to determine the meaning of America.”
The last third of Obama’s speech identified who we are, beginning with the phrase, “We are Lewis and Clark and Sacagawea,” and continuing on for ten more “We are…” phrases.
In a 3,500-word speech, Obama used “we” 119 times, “our” or “ours” 45 times, and “America” or “American” 48 times.
2. Values: What principles guide and define us?
A large part of who we are as a people – of our identity – is shaped by the principles that guide our actions, the values that we espouse, the standards by which we judge ourselves.
For Obama, the principles that exemplify America at its best are justice, fairness, inclusivity, and generosity.
3. Mission: What course of actions are we to take?
Leaders don’t defend the status quo or inaction. They stir people to an ongoing course of action in order to achieve some desired goal.
Here is where Obama circles back to his initial campaign theme: Change.
In Obama’s moral vision American is “a work in progress.”
American ideas and ideals have not been fully realized. They must be advanced, expanded, and realized anew in each generation, just as they were by those who marched in Selma 50 years ago.
Things have certainly changed for the better, but things still need to change: “For we were born of change.”
If we want to honor the courage of those who marched that day, then all of us are called to possess their moral imagination. All of us will need to feel, as they did, the fierce urgency of now. All of us need to recognize, as they did, that change depends on our actions, our attitudes, the things we teach our children. And if we make such effort, no matter how hard it may seem, laws can be passed, and consciences can be stirred, and consensus can be built.
Obama calls out three specific actions we must take – reform the criminal justice system, roll back poverty and the roadblocks to opportunity, and protect the right to vote – but only as a part of his more far-reaching moral vision “…to continually try to improve this great nation of ours.”
Maybe you agree with Obama’s moral vision. (I do.) Maybe you reject it. But you have to admit this: he stakes out his position boldly and unequivocally. I think that takes courage. And I applaud him for it.
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:
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).
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.
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.
Do leaders have a moral vision? Should they? How does a leader’s moral vision differ from a strategic vision?
And how does that moral vision play out in their speeches?
A moral vision is a leader’s sense of what matters and is meaningful, of what has value and worth, of what deserves respect and attention.
It is rarely articulated in any explicit way. Leaders may, themselves, be only vaguely aware of having a moral vision or, for that matter, of what it is. But it influences, informs, and inspires their every decision and action.
A strategic vision identifies an organization’s desired future and how it plans on getting there.
It involves values, both in regard to the ends and means for achieving those ends. It is meant, although it often fails, to inspire and motivate. It is invariably hammered out, clearly defined, and promulgated. (You can find it on most corporate websites.)
Whether or not leaders know what their moral vision is or are able to define it, it is on view every time they speak, in what they say and how they say it.
Do you have any doubt about Donald Trump’s moral vision? About what he values, respects, and attends to? Would you confuse his moral vision with that of Pope Francis?
So, back to my opening questions, and the three that I haven’t answered:
Do leaders have a moral vision? Yes, they do, whether they know it or not.
Should leaders have a moral vision? A better question is, should leaders be clearer, more intentional, about the moral vision they already have? And the answer to that question is yes.
How does that moral vision influence their speeches? In every way possible.
Their moral vision shapes what they talk about. Determines the stories they tell and the moral they draw from those stories. Reveals their passion, dedication, and commitment. Influences and motivates, resonates with or repels their audiences.
1. Leaders speak to influence and inspire audiences. Leaders aren’t primarily concerned with communicating information. They speak to promote a vision, a direction, or a passion. They want to change not just what people know, but how people think and feel and act.
2. Leaders speak when a lot is at stake. In times of crisis, change, or opportunity — when expectations are high and the consequences may be momentous — people turn to leaders for words of insight, reassurance, or direction. Leaders speak to make a difference, and unsettled times are when their words can have the greatest impact.