"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.