Damn you, Steve Ballmer.
Last week I returned from Europe, where I addressed five audiences,
each theoretically open to but practically skeptical of my claim that the
only modern purpose of a speech is to share an emotion with an
audience. To make my point, I showed speeches from Winston Churchill,
Charles de Gaulle, Barbara Jordan, John F. Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson and
Fred Rogers, along with other leaders who knew how to comfort and charm an
audience, show how courageous and committed they were to the shared
goals of their community, now and forever.
The Europeans scratched their own nodding heads; the Q&As were all "yes, but."
Despite the wide variety of examples I showed them, these
speechwriters and communication aides suspected—on behalf of their
speakers, for sure—that The Glib American was once again here to convince them to
be emotive circus clowns. As I learned (and wrote) the last time I gave my jam session overseas,
are big on splashy speeches for two reasons, theorized the former
diplomat, sometime speechwriter and full-time peanut gallery pundit
Charles Crawford. “You’re used to communicating with immigrants who
don’t speak very good English. And … you’ve got to have a show! In
America, everybody wants a show!”
in the United Kingdom, and even more so in Europe, what everybody
wants—well, what everybody expects—is an objective recitation of the
facts, the policy, the idea. “Yes, people like to be entertained,” said
veteran U.K. political and corporate speechwriter Stuart Mole. “But
there is nothing as exciting as ideas.”
So this time I was damned careful to get across my belief that an idea
is the table stakes for a speech—and for a leader's op/ed piece, blog
post or even Tweet. But that in the age of everymedia, the only reason to hold an event as insanely
inefficient as a speech—really, hundreds of people are going to put
their lives on hold and get in airplanes and fly to one place to listen to
one person talk for an hour?—is for the audience to be able to look the
speaker in the eye, and then look at one another in the eye, and feel the
mood in the room and have a spiritual or at least an emotional experience.
Yes, but. But, nothing! And I think I'd begun to convince many of these poeple, when …
… the very moment I got home, Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer confirmed all their suspicions of what I'm really
advocating, with his utterly self-indulgent, perfectly idea-free
emotional seizure in front of 13,000 employees who were in the dark (presumably, so we could only hear the cheers of some, and not see the
eye-rolling of others).
No, my Continental (and British) colleagues, this is not what I was advocating. Like this, which I also showed you …
… it's as obnoxious to me as it is to you, and it's worse than being boring. Actually, it's the same as being boring.
What did Microsoft employees get out of this in exchange for their
time? They already knew their departing CEO cries at
supermarket openings and card tricks. So he tells them they work for "the
greatest company in the world," and asks them to "soak it in." Soak what
in—an unfounded, self-interested opinion screeched about a company by a man who has worked there and nowhere else for 33 years? He thanks them—all 13,000 at once—without giving a single example
of how any one Microsoft employee gave him "the time of his life."
If a mid-level Microsoft accountant behaved this way at his
retirement party, people would assume he had too much to drink. And they would assume this in order to keep
themselves from worrying about his mental health. But the CEO rents a professional basketball arena, takes the stage and runs
around in front of everyone screaming and crying incoherently and we're supposed think it's
"genuine"? The only way he could have kept it more "real," by his standards, is to do it naked.
Even we Americans have our limits, my European friends.
Well, some of us do.