What messages should an incoming leader give in their first speech? A new US President, perhaps, or a potential new German Chancellor, or any new boss taking over a high profile role – how should they approach that crucial first communication?
It seems the right week to ask this question, and it’s something I am occasionally asked myself as a former speechwriter and co-author of ‘The 100 Greatest Speakers and Speeches of All Time’. Of course, every speech is context-specific, but I think there are several enduring points that are worth keeping in mind.
Vision. Great speeches guide as well as inspire, they are practical as well as rhetorical. Ask not what this quality means for you, ask what it means for others: the person in the arena, the folk in the shining city on the hill; and not because it’s easy, but because it’s hard… You get the picture.
Personal. Being open is a great way to draw people in and connect them with your message, and while this has not always been significant in the 2020s it definitely is: people need to relate.
Reassuring. A change is coming, and in times of change reassurance helps. Remember FDR: we have nothing to fear but fear itself.
Bold language. I think this is badly overlooked: people tend to favour the media (eg twitter) over the message (content and rhetoric). Language and tone really matter for many reasons, and not only because they convey emotion and nuance. If you think this is difficult and not something we can do just remember this: yes we can.
Respectful and decent. Emphasise positive, universal values that genuinely matter to you; they go a long way to showing your standards, who and how you are, and connecting with your audience.
Capture the moment. People need to know that you share their priorities and concerns. For example, in the USA this month there was a deadly riot in the Capitol, a Presidential impeachment, and a continuation of devastating health and economic crises, the worst in a century. This is a situation that cries out for effective leadership: capture the moment, meet that expectation.
Challenging. Whatever went before, good, bad or indifferent, we can always do more, go further, achieve progress.
Questioning. Although sometimes neglected I think this is the best way to engage your audience: driving home your message, inviting action and involvement, asking for support.
So, what are your top three ‘must-haves’ for any great speech? What do you admire in a speech, and what do you think people could do more or better?