“He who wants to persuade should put his trust not in the right argument, but in the right word.
The power of sound has always been greater than the power of sense.”
“Speech is power: speech is to persuade, to convert, to compel.”
Ralph Waldo Emerson
With an election going on all you have to do is turn on the television or go to any news website and you will see someone giving a speech. Great oration is a skill … almost an art. Some people are naturals. More people are not.
Having given some presentations in my lifetime, as well as provided some training, let me share one of the biggest secrets to presenting … if you have a great speech it is easy to present it.
In business we spend so much time trying to train someone on ‘how to present comfortably’ and ‘tricks’ to connect with an audience that it masks what presenting & speeches have in common with social media – content is the key.
Give me the best speech in the world and the worst presenter can give it.
Conversely … even the best presenter will stumble over the worst speech.
I thought of this as I watched several presidential candidates give a post mortem speech after the Tuesday elections.
I watched Rubio <sadly, yet defiantly, dropping out of the race>, Kasich <touched by a win in his own state>, Clinton <stepping up to the bigger beast in the room – Trump> and … well … the beast himself.
I won’t go into specifics of the four speeches but let me say that Rubio & Clinton must have great speech writers. Poetry and prose mixed with aspirations & hope & pragmatic expectations.
By the way … that is incredibly tough to do in a speech.
Very very few people can write that stuff.
Kasich speeches are easy to write because he has some common themes that come from his core beliefs & values. But suffice it to say that all three of those speeches were about ‘we the people’, what ‘we’ can do together, the spirit at the core of a country, hope for something better … and a dose of caution to not be enticed by the easier road of frustration, fear & hate.
And then there was Trump.
He has no speech writer. He is the speechwriter and you can tell.
There was no ‘we’ it was all ‘me.’
My poll numbers. My popularity. My smartness. My success. My creating voter turnout.
And the only “we” incorporated in were the stupid people who were losers or the enemy peering over the gates like China, Islam & Mexico <who he is gonna punch>.
It was all about his polls, his numbers, and him.
The contrast between speeches is stunning.
Everyone else talks about the people and attitude and spirit … he talks about how popular he is and … well … how stupid everyone is because we are losing too much.
The difference between the words, tone and attitude of the speeches was … well … truly stunning.
Anybody in business who writes presentations and gives speeches knows the Trump speech path is ultimately a dead end. People like to hear confidence & strong leadership but they want to feel participation and connection.
Solutions are always preferred to problems.
Implying people together is always preferred to tearing people apart.
Suffice it to say that without a grander purpose, something beyond an “outcome” objective <like a ‘win’> a speech only leads everyone down a dead end path.
A speech should attempt to find that sweet spot of prose, real facts, anecdote and the commitment to a greater purpose. People deserve to hear the good and it shouldn’t be overwhelmed by any bad.
Trump offers speeches carved on … well … tombstones and not hearts.
“Carve your name on hearts, not tombstones.
A legacy is etched into the minds of others and the stories they share about you.”
Shannon L. Alder
I love words and I love hearing a great speaker give a great speech. While Trump may be one of the most comfortable people I have ever seen behind a podium and a microphone he also may be one of the worst speech writers I have ever heard.
Simplistically … he delivers bad words, bad thoughts & bad rhetoric … but he does it well.
Give me the good, the hopeful, the commitment to a higher purpose any day of the week. And I honestly believe most people want to hear that.
Great speeches, given well, lift people up off of the easy angry, resentful, blame-paved path and let us fly when we don’t even realize we can fly.
I can write an okay speech <I have two posts coming up – one on writing a presentation and one on giving a presentation … as if there aren’t enough “how to” garbage already available online>.
But I am honest enough to know that even on my best day and in my best speech writing moment I may only get a glimpse of what a great speech writer can accomplish.
As I share that thought I remember a nice little scene from West Wing where Toby <the chief communications director> comments on Presidential State of the Union speeches and who can write them. He suggests there are maybe 6 or so in the country that can do so. I will not haggle over the number but suffice it to say he is correct … great speechwriters are few and far between.
This also means the everyday schmuck <think … “you & I”> writes a generally crappy speech <even though we all think it is great>.
I believe I am in the minority in this thinking.
I think many people <more than can actually do it> believe they write great speeches.
Maybe worse for the business world is that I think many businesses believe too many of their own people should, and can, write speeches.
As a word guy I want to teach & coach everyone to use words well & wisely.
But, in business, it is … well … business.
This is not a popular thought in the current business world view of collaboration & empowerment but I believe businesses should identify their great speechwriters and empower them to write the business speeches.
What this means is that some people end up delivering speeches written by other people.
This freaks a shitload of people out.
I actually believe they get freaked out for two main reasons:
<1> conceptually it fights the internal “I am best at delivering shit in my own words … words I would use”. The key here is ‘conceptually’. Good words are good words and good thoughts are good thoughts. The kind of words you would actually use shouldn’t change the meaning of a great speech or presentation. But we freak out nonetheless … even before we even see the speech
<2> pragmatically most business presentations and speeches are written by crappy writers therefore I do end up freaked out just by looking at what I am being asked to speak. This is beyond the ‘corporate speak’ stench that emanates from every hallway in every business. That is just business crap. a great speech has order and ebbs & flows and seamlessly slides from point to point. Most businesses do not have a shitload of people who can do that.
In business … you almost cannot pay a great speechwriter or great presentation writer enough money. If you have one in your organization you should treat them like gold.
Within a great speech there is often a paragraph or a line that you know is great even as it slips across your lips:
- Clinton’s line about Trump … “it doesn’t make him strong … it makes him wrong.”
- Kasich’s indirect jab at Trump … “I will not take the low road to the highest office in the land.”
But the greatest of the great speeches cross over into some unseen universe of euphoria. As a listener you listen, hear … and may not remember specifics but you remember how it made you feel.
Nowhere has this been showcased better than on the old television show West Wing.
For example … after a pipe bomb explodes at a university killing 44 people, including three swimmers, the president gives a speech that includes the following:
“… More than any time in recent history, America’s destiny is not of our own choosing. We did not seek nor did we provoke an assault on our freedoms and our way of life. We did not expect nor did we invite a confrontation with evil. Yet the true measure of a people’s strength is how they rise to master that moment when it does arrive. Forty-four people were killed a couple of hours ago at Kennison State University; three swimmers from the men’s team were killed and two others are in critical condition; when after having heard the explosion from their practice facility they ran into the fire to help get people out … ran ‘into’ the fire. The streets of heaven are too crowded with angels tonight. They’re our students and our teachers and our parents and our friends. The streets of heaven are too crowded with angels, but every time we think we have measured our capacity to meet a challenge, we look up and we’re reminded that that capacity may well be limitless. This is a time for American heroes. We will do what is hard. We will achieve what is great. This is a time for American heroes and we reach for the stars. God bless their memory, God bless you, and God bless the United States of America.”
The explanation that the director of communications gives when discussing free trade:
You want to know the benefits of free trade? Food is cheaper.
Food is cheaper! Clothes are cheaper. Steel is cheaper. Cars are cheaper. Phone service is cheaper. You feel me building a rhythm here? That’s because I’m a speech writer – I know how to make a point.
It lowers prices, it raises income. You see what I did with ‘lowers’ and ‘raises’ there?
It’s called the science of listener attention. We did repetition, we did floating opposites, and now you end with the one that’s not like the others. Ready? Free trade stops wars. Heh, and that’s it. Free trade stops wars! And we figure out a way to fix the rest.
Words really do matter and, possibly even more important, words delivered well really matter. The wrong words and speech can kill the best idea. Back in 2012 I wrote about elections and words used well and made this point.
Speeches are not like stories. Just as presentations are not really stories.
Speeches are all about using words well to lift people from one place to another.
Speeches are not meant to lower themselves into the ordinary uncomfortable truths of what we feel. Speeches are meant to recognize the uncomfortable truths and then lift us above it so we can see a horizon where things are better … the comfortable truth that what is will not always be and what will be is better for you, me & everyone – that no one gets left behind.
A great speech lets us see what will be and not what is. Anyone who writes a speech … and gives a speech … would do well to remember the wise words of Hugh McLeod … “the market for something to believe in is infinite.”