I’m not going to analyze the content of President Obama’s acceptance speech in Oslo, other than to say I enjoyed the fact that it was substantial enough to merit discussion.
(For the full text of his speech, go here.)
Instead I’m going to use his speech as a jumping off point to discuss three points about how and why leaders give speeches.
First, leaders speak all the time, and most of their speeches can be grouped into three categories:
- Stump speeches are speeches that leaders give over and over again. Politicians on the campaign trail may give their stump speech four or five times a day — word for word the same but to different audiences. Leaders in other arenas — in nonprofit circles, in the corporate world, in the public sector — do the same thing. They develop a speech (maybe two or three) that sets out their main themes or principles. They refine and polish that speech, and they more or less commit it to memory.
- Ceremonials are mini-speeches that leaders are frequently called upon to deliver. Welcoming visitors, accepting or giving an award, proposing a toast, introducing a dignitary, speaking at an induction ceremony, a graduation, or a retirement — all such events are ceremonials. Experienced leaders save themselves a lot of time by a) using a simple template for each different type, and 2) incorporating the themes or principles from their stump speeches into their ceremonials.
- Policy statements are one-time-only speeches that set out a leader’s thoughts about some important event, development, or occasion. When a CEO announces a new direction or a major acquisition, when the executive director of a nonprofit agency launches a new initiative, or when a community leader addresses a governmental body, they are making policy statements. They are the most labor-intensive type of speech a leader gives, because they require so much thought, so much is riding on them, and they will only be given once.
Obama’s speech in Oslo earlier this week was a policy statement.
Second, leaders give speeches for one of three reasons.
- To shape a group’s identity — Leaders are constantly telling their audiences who we are, what we value, where we have come from (our history), and where we are headed (our mission). A significant section of Obama’s speech was devoted to telling his audience about what it means to be an American.
- To influence who the audience thinks and feels about an important issue — Leaders aren’t primarily concerned about communicating information. They don’t want to add to the audience’s storehouse of knowledge; they want to shape how the audience perceives what they already know. The bulk of Obama’s speech does this. He devotes at least two-thirds of his speech to discussing war, the necessity of using force, and the conditions of peace.
- To inspire the audience – Leaders call their audiences to act in a way that is consistent with their deeply held beliefs and values. (For my discussion about how inspiration is different from motivation, go here.) Obama ended his speech on an inspirational note: “So let us reach for the world that ought to be…”
Third, leaders don’t do PowerPoint.
Okay, so that just so happens to be the title of my book, but I can’t see how Obama’s speech would have been improved in any way by PowerPoint. Save PowerPoint for presentations, when your main objective is to communicate information. Whether you’re giving a stump speech, a ceremonial, or a policy statement, whether you’re speaking to identify, influence, or inspire, stay away from PowerPoint. Trust yourself and the power of your words.
Let’s not get into a political discussion here. There are other blogs devoted to that. But I’d love to hear what you took away from Obama’s speech.