Executives represent both their organizations and themselves every time they speak. So their speeches have to communicate – verbally and nonverbally – a message that is strong, clear, and compelling.
Executive speeches may be for internal or external audiences. They may be impromptu and informal or planned months in advance and delivered in the most formal setting. They may be brief – words of welcome to a visiting dignitary, for example – or extensive. They may be measured and fact-based – the annual financial report, say – or rousing.
No one size fits all. Executive speeches are – or should be – unique to the person giving the speech, the occasion, the audience, and the intention. But every speech – every effective executive speech, at least – can be strengthened if you follow these guidelines.
1. Be yourself.
You are the message. Everything the audience knows (or thinks it knows) about your character, values, personality, experience, and commitments shapes how they hear what you say. Your words are meaningless unless the rest of you backs them up. The last thing you want to do is imitate someone else.
2. Speak for one (or all) of three reasons.
Unlike others, leaders don’t speak primarily to communicate information. Leaders – and that’s what executives are – speak to
A) IDENTIFY the audience (form the group’s identity by telling them their history, their uniqueness, their values),
B) INFLUENCE the audience (shape the way they think and feel about issues), and
C) INSPIRE the audience (tap into their deeply-held values and desires to move them to action).
3. Develop one BIG IDEA.
Build each speech around an idea. But it’s got to be a BIG IDEA, something that is true and worthy, something that has the power to change people’s lives, if only in a small way. Do not confuse using big words – jargon, buzzwords, and corporate-speak – with presenting a big idea.
4. Keep it brief.
Today’s audiences have limited attention spans, so there’s more reason than ever to keep you speeches as brief a possible. You always want to leave your audiences wanting more, not less of you. Besides, when was the last time you left a speech thinking, “I wish the speaker had gone on longer.” With rare exceptions, keep your speeches – even important ones – to less than 20 minutes.
5. Use simple rhetorical devices to make it memorable.
Speeches today are much more conversational, much less formal than those of the past. While we admire the eloquence and elevated language of someone like John Kennedy, few of us could give speeches like his without sounding dated and fussy. There are, however, simple rhetorical devices that will make your speeches easier to understand and remember:
The Power of Three: A series of three words, phrases, or clauses of equal length and increasing power. “Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”
Repetition: The repeated use of the same word or word pattern. “I have a dream” in Martin Luther King’s speech in front of the Lincoln Monument. “Yes we can” in Obama’s election night speech.
Alliteration: The repetition of consonants at the beginning of two or more words. “The history of America is one of tragedy turned into triumph.”
Antithesis: The juxtaposition of contrasting words or ideas. “Led not by polls but by principle, not by calculation but by conviction.”
Demosthenes, the greatest of Greek orators, said the three tests of a great speech are “Action. Action. Action.” For executives today, the answer would be “Results. Results. Results.”
The principles and rules of speaking exist to help you accomplish your goals. They are not, in themselves, important. If you are getting the results you want, there’s no reason to change what you’re doing. But if you’d like to get better results from your speech, consider working with an executive speech coach.