"If we don't do bad work, bad work won't get done."
That was easy for my dad to say back in 1972, because he was writing to the staff of his just-opened advertising agency. They hadn't done any bad work yet, unlike the rest of us, who if we have been employed by any organization for awhile, are each mired in a traditions of bad work: ain't-broke-don't-fix-it rituals and we've-always-done-it-that-way mores and shabby games where grownups play pretend.
For instance: An association's speechwriter writes to tell me she has to write the same speech every year "when our executive director gives his year-end report to the membership at our national conference. His goal is to touch on each area of the organization and mention names of as many member volunteers as possible … in 20 minutes. My goal is to make this litany of accomplishments and names as interesting as possible for the audience. To that end, I would greatly appreciate any thoughts you may have as to how I might better accomplish both goals in the future."
What did I tell her? I told her what she already knew. Her first goal was idiotic and the second was an impossibility. That's not exactly how I said it.
You'll never write a truly elegant speech that is also a litany. As one of the Cicero [Speechwriting Awards] judges said about [a] speech that didn't win an award, "But a great speech can't be a list; it just can't."
What I'd recommend to your executive director is that he put out a print document of some kind with the litany of volunteers and the roundup of activities, and focus the speech on the most pressing issue of the moment. (One of the consequences of your current format is that the audience gets to the end of the speech without knowing what's the most urgent fact of life at [the association]. Is it the bad economy? Is it the new web portal? It's hard to know. But don't members deserve to know that from their leader?)
Given the format of this speech … I can't imagine how you could have done a better job. It's nicely crafted. But if the speech is going to ring anybody's bell, or be remembered or be influential, the format is going to have to change.
The way I describe this to clients is this: When you have the unique and rare opportunity to look your constituents in the eyeballs, you ought to take advantage, and communicate something to them—a strong conviction, a hard truth, a bold new plan, a call to action—that you couldn't do via print, via intranet, via Internet, etc.
Phone books (and ceremonial speeches) hold litanies. Books (and memorable speeches) hold singular, coherent messages.
Not to be too obtuse about all this, I will offer one suggested compromise: Next year, you might open with a strong message—I have something very important to talk to you about, a crossroads in our association (or whatever) but first I want to give you a brief rundown of some amazing things we've accomplished this year, and the people who made them happen. Then hold them in some kind of suspense while he breathlessly runs through the highlights, and then returns to the big message.
That's not ideal—ideal would be to dispense with the fancy opening metaphor, "Traditionally this speech has been a litany of the accomplishments … and we've made lots of those this year too. But this year I'd like to talk about one issue in more detail …."
Once he does that ONE YEAR, it sets the precedent for doing it every year hence. And a focused, strategic message (rather than reading a list of names and achievements, however nicely crafted) is what a leader owes his constituency.
Did I tell her the right thing? What would you have told her? It seems to me somebody ought to create a book that lists—in a litany, you might say—the 100 dumbest communication rituals and common worst-practices (the news-free news release, the hollow CEO's letter in the employee publication, the ribbon-cutting story) and collects strategies like the one I've offered above, for breaking the spell.
Here's the title of the book: If We Stop Doing Bad Work, Bad Work Will Stop Getting Done.
Kristen Ridley says
I think you did tell her the right thing.
What I think I would have added is: “What kind of FEEDBACK do you solicit from this audience about this yearly speech?” Because as we all know senior folks don’t always take the word of us communicators about what the audience REALLY wants, and how the audience ACTUALLY receives the “this is how we’ve always done it” speech format.
If she isn’t already doing some sort of survey or an online “yes or now” checkbox on the website, or even for gosh’s sake a show of hands to the question: “How many of you felt the speech gave you the information you REALLY want to know about the association?” then she probably won’t be successful convincing the executive director that change makes sense. Senior people like and respond to research and hard data that proves our recommendations are sound.
If she shows up at the discussion for next year’s speech with survey results that show a majority of those in last year’s audience want different information from the executive director, he might let her try a new approach in a future speech. Then, of course, she needs to MAKE SURE she does that same survey after the new format speech to prove how successful it actually was.
David Murray says
Good addition, Ridley. I always forget the research, partly because I don’t have a lot of faith in an audience knowing what it wants but is not getting.
But there’s certainly no reason not to try to squeeze some meaningful feedback from the audience, and if you do get some, I agree it could strengthen the case for doing something different.
Kristen Ridley says
We disagree on what the audience knows, but I take your point.
That’s why organizations have communicators. In my opinion, a big part of our job is to be out there interacting with members of our audiences, asking questions, understanding challenges, etc. That allows us to combine those insights with the – ideally – access and involvement we have with our senior leaders so that we can create truly effective, insightful, comprehensive measurement questions that deliver the full picture of how “we’re” doing and where opportunities to improve exist.
Otherwise, communicators can easily become just as myopic and ineffective as those executives we write those same speeches for year in and year out.
We gotta get data from somewhere. Doesn’t it make sense that at least SOME of that feedback should come from the key audiences we communicate with regularly?
Liz Guthridge says
Great advice, David. And Kristen, I agree on the research.
If people did this, it would make life so much easier for those of us who are on the stage looking at the audience during these often very boring talks. Sometimes I’ve had to pinch myself to not yawn with boredom.
You see, in addition to being a change commmunication consultant, I am a professional registered parliamentarian. When I serve in this latter role, I’m often sitting between the Chair of the board and the President of the Association, looking out at the assembly.
And believe me I still remember key phrases from compelling speeches from years ago. I also remember one Planned Parenthood chair impromptu telling people that they needed to sit down for the meeting to begin. But once they did, if they then wanted to speak, they should rise and either go to the “con” mike for “condom” or the “pro” mike for “prophylaxis.” He had the audience’s full attention for his speech and everything else he said!
Yes but what do you do when you say, “I have some data that show…” and a client replies, “I don’t care, this is what I want you to do so do it.”
In my career, I have found there are two categories of clients: those who view us as meaningful advisors (about 25-30%) and those who view us as their admin (the remaining 70-75%).
In my workshops, I tell the bedraggled who attend (I can always spot the ones with the uncaring bosses — their tongues tend to loll outside their mouths, they tend to tear up and wail without warning, they nod vehemently at everything I say and come up during the break asking me to hire them, etc.) “You have done your job to the best of the ability if you’ve given your client/employer/dictator great advice (i.e. trackable data).
They may take your advice, very likely they wont. You are no longer an effective vendor/employee/serf when you stop giving them good advice and just do what they say.
Data is more for our benefit I think than theirs. We hope they will join our party but those who are more comfortable doing it how it has always been done just dont have what it takes to go there, alas.
Prepare yourselves: It’s the voice of the world-weary here.
It may be that this speaker can’t make a quickstep from “what I’ve always done”/feel comfortable with to “what would actually work”/be scary for me, no matter how sensibly presented and well-written.
Perhaps it’s different for those hired as consultants, because consultants are brought in when management WANTS change. For those who work daily for an organization, changing someone’s established communication mode takes time and trust. If this communicator can make next year’s speech is even 30 percent better, then that may be all the victory she gets in the short term. Longer term, she may be able to move things forward bit by bit.
I’m all for the “we are the change we want to see in the world,” but let’s be realistic about just how much change that’s going to be. Blaming the communicator for the vagaries, quirks and whims of management doesn’t seem right, especially when management consistently has such strong (shall we call them) “preferences” about communication.
I like Kristen’s feedback idea. Maybe if not from the association members, then from those in the organization whom this leader trusts. That kind of feedback might be less threatening and at least give the communicator a chance to improve things somewhat.
David Murray says
Amy, everything you say makes sense. I ain’t blaming her for being in her position, but when an already-competent communicator is asking my advice on how to make things 30% better … well, she’s probably asking the wrong guy. I’m a 70%-better guy.