The chief executives of big companies like Apple, Nike, Walmart, and others have been releasing statements supporting diversity and reacting to widespread protests over the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis.
Overall, most of these statements have landed with a thud.
As Amanda Mull put it in The Atlantic this week, "Companies who have no business associating themselves with anti-racism movements are trying to say the right thing without upsetting anyone, walking right up to the line of politics without stepping one toe over it."
With that in mind, I think anyone who has to address their team about racism in the coming days -- and frankly, that probably means just about any business leader, no matter the size of your company -- should take a look at the short video statement that a U.S. Air Force general released Friday.
General Charles Q. Brown Jr. is a four-star general, currently in charge of all Air Force forces in the Pacific region. He's also been nominated to become the chief of staff of the Air Force, which is the top position in the service.
Brown is a black man, and outside of the Air Force, I suppose most people would not know his name. But his video statement might well change that.
I'll include the whole thing at the end of this column. First, let's talk about why it works.
I think this speech will strike people as unusual, especially if they haven't served in the military. It's very personal, digging deep into Brown's own experiences, and also acknowledging that his experiences might not be typical. At the same time, he's very forthright about questions for which he says he doesn't have answers.
But I think it would be difficult to listen to his speech, as he describes moving back and forth between a world with African-American peers and a world of senior leaders in the military, where there are many fewer black people, and not be affected -- especially for the people who need to hear it most.
2. Rhythm and repetition
I was reminded, of all things, of Martin Luther King Jr.'s "I Have a Dream" speech when I watched this. Brown doesn't use the same kind of soaring rhetoric, and he doesn't have the same, almost choral delivery. But his speech is organized around repetition and symmetry, much as King's most famous speech was.
Brown starts out by saying that as a commander, and as an African-American man, he suspects the people under his command would be interested to know what he thinks about "the current events surrounding the tragic death of George Floyd."
Almost every single sentence in the rest of the speech then starts out with the same phrase:
- "I'm thinking about how full I am with emotion ..."
- "I'm thinking about protests, and 'My country, 'tis of thee ...'"
- "I'm thinking about a history of racial issues and my own experiences ..."
The repetition works, because the audience is quickly trained to expect what's coming next.
3. Tone and delivery
There's clear emotion behind the speech, but Brown delivers it in a clipped, dispassionate tone.
He doesn't rail against injustice or minimize his concerns. Instead, he talks largely about his own experiences -- that he and his sister were the only black children in their elementary school, that he came up through the Air Force realizing that almost no one else in his squadron looked like him, and that, though he wore the same flight suit and pilot's wings as his fellow pilots, another member of the military asked him if he was a pilot.
The whole thing runs less than five minutes, which I'm guessing means it's under 1,000 words.
The one thing that can easily ruin an otherwise great speech is for it to go on too long. Even though this is clearly an important and personal topic for Brown, and it's timely in terms of the message he needs to share with the pilots and airmen who work with him, he keeps it short.
When you're done, stop talking.
That's good advice for almost any kind of communication. In fact, I think I'll take it now. Here's the video of his speech:
"As the Commander of Pacific Air Forces, a senior leader in our Air Force, and an African-American, many of you may be wondering what I'm thinking about the current events surrounding the tragic death of George Floyd. Here's what I'm thinking about..." - Gen. CQ Brown, Jr. pic.twitter.com/I2sf1067L6-- PACAF (@PACAF) June 5, 2020