Attention all speechwriters (and the leaders they serve): There is required reading for you this weekend.
Two great pieces on communications appeared over the weekend and if you missed them you missed a fantastic opportunity to learn about the importance of real, purposeful communication. The first talks about how to determine a key message in a speech. The second talks about how - and why - to connect that speech to a larger narrative.
When I speak about and teach speechwriting, I often encourage writers to begin with a simple 1-2-3 process:
- Analyze the audience and determine what it’s needs are;
- Determine your purpose for speaking;
- Choose your key message - your narrative - carefully and accordingly.
These have to be taken in this order, by the way. One builds on the other. If you pick your key messages before you know what the audience needs – a mistake more common than you might believe – you waste a tremendous opportunity and risk alienating the audience. In fact, you will probably do more harm than good to you and your organization.
A common gaffe among many speakers is going to the podium with either A) too many key messages or B) no key messages or narrative at all. The result is a confusing jumble of words and speeches that may inform but do little else. They don’t creat understanding. They don’t reinforce values. They don’t change opinion. And they certainly don’t elicit action.
But you don’t have to take my word for it. Two illuminating pieces over the weekend reinforce this idea very eloquently.
The first is from the master speechwriter Bob Lehrman, the chief speechwriter for Al Gore and now a professor at American University. His opinion piece at The New York Times is a must-read for any one who even ocassionally writes speeches.
In this highly entertaining essay, Bob talks about how he got into speechwriting, the importance of story, why establishing and protecting ethos is critical and awesome power of simplicity. And he speaks with the experience of someone who’s fought the battles: “It also can be difficult,” he writes, “to make someone sound like Moses addressing the Israelites when you announce a three-point plan for reducing the deficit.”
I would encourage you to pay most attention, however, to his words on Monroe’s Motivated Sequence. He says it’s the most popular structure for political speeches and I have no doubt he’s correct. But it could be – and perhaps should be – the go-to structure for those in the corporate and not-for-profit sector as well. Why? Because it forces the speaker to go through the 1-2-3 process I outlined above and places the speech message where it should be: on the audience and its needs.
I call it choosing your own headline. If you fail to choose your own headline – by writing speeches with either no clear, audience-centric message or too many messages – you leave that critical task to the audience. That's a failure of purpose communication and a failure of true leadership.
The second piece is from The New York Times Magazine, a great piece of writing from Matt Bai. Again, the subject is how – and why – establishing your own narrative with the audience is crucial. Case in point: President Obama’s failure to do just that for four years.
Too often, leaders get caught up in the day-to-day. A speech here on health care. A speech there on trade. Another one on the importance of energy or national defense. As Bai points out, there is nothing wrong with that, expect when it’s unconnected to an overall narrative or storyline. In other words, it's fine to have great speeches but do the speeches - collectively - help tell a larger story that resonates with your audience?
David Gergen is quoted as comparing a leader’s need for a clear narrative to a clothesline: “You adopt your clothesline and then you hang your policies from it. They’re missing the clothesline.”
And when you fail to establish that narrative, you create a vacuum. And nature abhors a vacuum ... but only for an instance. Why? Because the moment you fail to fill that void with your own story, someone else will fill it for you. And why would anyone surrender their own narrative to someone else?
Two great articles. Two great lessons. Enjoy.