Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Finding Your Right Voice

A fellow blogger’s (Vincent Wright’s) comments about my last blog, “Communication Branding: A Speech”, sparked the idea for this one. That blog reminded him of a Walt Whitman poem, and he sent this excerpt from “Voices” in Leaves of Grass:

“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.”

Whitman’s words got me thinking that I really needed to comment on delivery since the content of a speech is only half of a branding story. Each spring we’re reminded that a major draw for any university commencement address is the speaker. The strength of the speaker’s delivery skills will make or break the impact of the message. Let me elaborate on that point with a few examples.

Audio books, once dismissed as an aid for the blind and disabled, are now leading a very hot and lucrative literary market. Financial success for these books is extremely dependent on the voice and skills of the reader.

Whenever possible the reader should be the author, but not if the voice is wrong. I don’t know if Paula Dean has any audio cookbooks, but the mere thought of hearing her read the ingredients in a recipe makes me cringe. The sound of her voice isn’t so bad as hearing nails on a chalk board, but it’s not far from it. I know from whence I speak, as my earbuds have transmitted the sound of many authors during my daily workout or run.

I find it hard to listen to President Barack Obama. My discomfort may have something to do with the fact that he regularly slips in and out of speech patterns/dialects depending on his audience. He generally uses a “Kansas” sound, sometimes referred to as a South Midland accent. When speaking to a primarily Black audience, he adopts either a Chicago style or African American Vernacular English (AAVE).

Like other politicians, Obama selects a dialect to suit the particular audience he’s addressing; and since we’re not in the audience, we have to adapt our ears to TV or audio clips. Subtle as they may be, his shifting speech patterns and distracting dependence on a teleprompter contribute all too often to a weak delivery. In my opinion he’s at his best when he’s being a humorist, for the words are few and his comedic timing is near perfect.

President George W. Bush has a distinct Texas twang that got more pronounced the deeper in the South he was speaking. Haley Barbour was an outstanding 63rd governor of Mississippi, but I suspect his heavy Southern accent has precluded him from moving beyond the national stage he achieved as the former chairman of the NRC.

One of the best examples of harmonious delivery and message can be found in Kevin Costner’s eulogy for his friend, Whitney Houston. His recollection of their friendship and Whitney’s strengths and insecurities was a standout in the string of tributes in a far too-long memorial service. Kostner found the right voice to speak to the congregation and did so with remembrances beautifully crafted and a flawless, extremely moving delivery.

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.