Sunday, July 1, 2012

Communication Branding: A Speech

I’m fascinated by speeches as an art form and (today, more than ever) a significant communication vehicle.
Some speeches are merely good, while some are so unique they capture the life of the deliverer. Consider Steve Jobs’s defining speech, delivered in 2005 to the graduating class of Stanford University. He talked about the good and bad lessons learned in his rather remarkable young life. Was it all accurate? Probably not. But it was as true as he believed it to be at that point in time.

Speeches, whether keynote to introduce a new product or graduation advice, are in the news lately. Several weeks ago we watched Tim Cook, Apple’s new CEO, on stage owning his new title at the annual conference for digital developers.

Virginia Heffernan, a correspondent for Yahoo News, said of his debut, “Cook was credible. He was a little mist. And, to the guilty delight of everyone, he was not Steve Jobs. The truth is, he was better.”

This is branding at its best, delivering the message that Apple remains strong and innovative under a new and different leader.

This spring commencement speeches across the U.S. insulted, inspired, and handed out real world advice and wisdom to graduating seniors. And in most cases, they advanced the star quality of the message bearers. 

On June 1, David McCullough – a little-known high school English teacher in Wellesley, Mass. – shocked graduating seniors by telling them that “they were not special or exceptional,” a commencement message so unusual that it immediately went viral. He is now part of the YouTube “forever” medium and an instant personality to be seen and played repeatedly worldwide.

Larry Winget, a New York Times and Wall Street Journal best-selling author, was equally blunt when he advised graduates that “real world employers don’t care much about your degree, your happiness, your income or really much of anything that has to do with you.  They care about what you can do for them.”

Former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, in her address at Southern Methodist University, cautioned students: “At those times when you’re absolutely sure that you’re right, talk with someone who disagrees. And if you constantly find yourself in the company of those who say ’amen’ to everything that you say, find other company.”

A kinder, gentler and very brief speech was delivered in record time (10 minutes!) to the graduates of Santa Clara University by Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak. His words were contradictory to many graduation messages in that he accented the positive in declaring:  “Happiness equals smiles minus frowns.” In dealing with life, the “Woz” urged “persistence, sprinkled with good people skills.” Not bad advice for getting along and getting ahead in work and play.

Whatever the message, few speeches live on as has the Jobs speech. But as commentary on the tenor of the times, graduation speeches deserve closer scrutiny.

Each spring some of the top minds in politics and business agree to address graduating seniors (in blistering heat or a day of rain and high humidity) and impart their thoughts on building a better tomorrow for themselves and humanity.

Last week Sheryl Sandberg, COO of Facebook, became the first woman appointed to its Board of Directors. This was highly predictable, as she spelled out how to get there in her speech to Barnard College graduating seniors in May 2011! I urge you to check it out on YouTube, as her message is powerful, inspiring and funny. And it works.


  1. Excellent observations, Melissa! (Indeed, as someone who's loved spoken arts his entire adult life, I'm happy that your blog post immediately reminded me of Walt Whitman's very relevant poem entitled "Voices"...

    (Here's an excerpt of "Voices": "O what is it in me that makes me tremble so at voices? Surely, whoever speaks to me in the right voice, him or her I shall follow,
    As the water follows the moon, silently, with fluid steps, anywhere around the globe. All waits for the right voices; Where is the practis’d and perfect organ? Where is the develop’d Soul? For I see every word utter’d thence, has deeper, sweeter, new sounds, impossible on less terms."

    1. Vincent- Thank you so much for your excerpt of "Voices". Your mention of the sound/voices was very relevant for it is the human voice that can make the spoken word so compelling. Like you the spoken arts have been a passion of mine and a driving force in my business to help my clients be successful speakers.

  2. Along with humor and engaging audiences, it's a challenge to offer a diverse audience a message that will resonate and leave them with gifts for their journey ahead. Here's an example of a storied approach to this challenge. A collage of stories is used to offer students three gifts for their journey (judgment, compassion, and mercy).

  3. Terrence,

    You are so right and why speaking to graduating seniors is probably one of the easiest speaking assignments. But, as you say the key is to give a message that resonates and is memorable. I will look forward to your collage of stories!