How do you gauge the success of a speech? Amount of applause? Number of quotes that made it into the media? A formal pre/post analysis of audience attitudes and knowledge?
The question of success is one that haunts every speechwriter because success itself is, in many cases, so un-quantifiable. Only at the most basic level – Informing – can you really begin to quantify the success of a speech. You could, for instance, give a speech on monetary policy and do a pre-speech/post-speech survey to see if audience knowledge increased.
But most speeches, I would submit, aim higher. Most speakers want to do more than merely Inform. They want to Change Attitudes and, ultimately, Elicit Action. And those require more than a simple speech, no matter how good it is. It requires a long, well-designed communications strategy that builds, step by step, a path toward the goal.
So what are we left with when we want to judge an individual speech? Technique? Structure? Ability to communicate a logical answer to the talk’s main supposition or argument?
It’s not an idle question. Consider the speech on Jan. 28 from China’s Premier Wen Jiabao. He delivered it at the opening session of World Economic Form in Davos.
By my standards, this is not simply a good speech. On a scale of 10, I’d give it a 7.5-8. High praise, in other words. At the very beginning of this speech on the world’s economic crisis, the premier states his primary message: “It is … our responsibility to send to the world a message of confidence, courage and hope.”
His outline from here is essentially:
- Causes of the Crisis
- Impact on China
- China's Reponse
- Why China is Confident of its Economy
- Five Ways World Leaders Can Encourage Confidence
Although I wish he would have telegraphed this outline earlier, the audience can follow this speech pretty well as it is. It’s not a complex structure; in fact, it’s quite logical.
Likewise, the five proposals he offers are well considered. They are respectful and reaffirm, as he says, China’s “abiding commitment to peaceful, open and cooperative development.”
He ends with a nice line, too: "The harsh winter will be gone and spring is around the corner. Let us strengthen confidence and work closely together to bring about a new round of world economic growth.”
Again, a nice speech by my standards. My primary quibble is that he didn’t state what I feel is obvious concerning the economy: that confidence won’t return until jobs return. But I can’t judge this ultimate success of this speech. And neither can you. Why? Because neither of us know the premier’s intent.
It could have been a major success. Or it could have flopped. Maybe a 10 – just as easily a 0. What makes this so difficult to judge is the way this speech was reported in the media. I couldn’t find a single major story – outside China! - that gave any serious consideration to the premier’s five proposals. A few reported on China’s homegrown confidence. But those were the outliers. Here is the how the mainstream media played it:
- Hindu (India): China blanes low savings, high spending for global downturn.
- The Telegraph (UK): Russia and China blame West for economic crisis.
- The New York Times (US): Russia and China Blame Capitalists.
- Reuters (Intl): Russia and China blame crisis on debt binge.
I’m of the belief that nothing was in the speech by accident. This “blame the West” portion of the speech was inserted with intent. The Chinese make no accidental remarks in formal talks.
What we don’t know – and the reason we must reserve judgment on the speech itself – is whether China intended for this idea to dominate the headlines … or if they misjudged the way the media would report it.
Regardless, there is a lesson here for speechwriters. And that is this: your primary argument is sacrosanct. Inserting off-topic material can ruin an otherwise nicely crafted talk and kill your key message points. Unless, of course, the off-topic material is key message. That’s a bold course of action and not one for the faint of heart. But as China proves, it can be done.