It’s that time of year. Business leaders and educators everywhere are attempting to inspire graduates at high schools and colleges with a terrific commencement speech. Among the more notable attempts was one from David McCullough, a Wellesley High School English teacher, whose “You Are Not Special” speech, encouraged students to go out and make their privileged lives remarkable despite everyone-gets-a-soccer-trophy childhoods.
At my daughter’s high school graduation last week, we heard speeches from three valedictorians and one salutatorian. In a graduating class of more than 700 students, these students have crazy good grades. They are the brightest bulbs in the box. Current and future leaders. And their speeches were awful.
I’m sure they all Googled “qualities of good speeches” and learned that the hallmark of an exceptional speech is an engaging story. So they all told stories. One valedictorian shared his first goal from when he was five years old: He had wanted to be a bus driver. Then he added with a laugh, “Thankfully, my parents talked me into setting much higher goals!” His insensitive remark wafted over the caps and gowns to the parents in the bleachers, who groaned and shook their heads.
Business leaders and entrepreneurs are almost by definition passionate, driven, exceptional people. But your most brilliant idea or message can sabotage your cause if you don’t consider how to catch and keep an audience’s attention:
Appropriate. Sure, a memorable speaker can and should paint vivid stories. But did no one point out to the valedictorian that his bus driver comment was elitist and inappropriate? How many hard-working, non-white-collar parents or grandparents made his education and success—and those of his peers-- possible? As an eager college intern, I once introduced a corporate video about impending cutbacks with a breezy comment about how there wasn’t a pre-movie cartoon. I quickly regretted my poor attempt at levity. Don’t forget, a great speech should be a gift from you. It’s not all about you.
Audience. Another valedictorian delivered a mundane address but ended with a popular phrase from The Hunger Games, saying, “Congratulations class of 2012. May the odds be ever in your favor!” Students and parents perked up and cheered. Sometimes a familiar phrase, image, song or creative cultural element—something universal to your audience—can make your point quickly and convey camaraderie more effectively than your own words.
Practice The last valedictorian was so uncomfortable that she giggled throughout while desperately trying to convey a serious, inspirational message. The rhythm of her words was so stilted and punctuated by awkward pauses and giggles that no one could feel anything but pity. Kids: How do you get to Carnegie Hall? Practice, practice, practice. This goes for business owners, too. If the message is important for your team, customers, partners or peers, say it out loud until you can do so with great conviction and confidence.
Passion The best speeches are authentic and transparent and come straight from the heart. Pull stories from your own life and use the language you use every day. Lofty vocabulary and long, compound sentences don’t inspire anyone. Consider one of the most brilliant (and arrogant) public figures of our time, Steve Jobs. His 2005 commencement address to Stanford University graduates is among the greatest speeches ever because it was uniquely, passionately, unexpectedly Steve.
Well-crafted stories are among the most powerful tools in your business arsenal. Whether seeking investors, recruiting top talent, pitching new customers or addressing your company, good leaders know how to shape and sell a story. But truly great leaders also take time to personalize and fine-tune their delivery for maximum impact—making the difference between ho-hum and Hallelujah!