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The Speechmaker

imageBig speeches require a massive amount of effort.

Good communicators know this and smart executives commit to it.

The Wall Street Journal has a piece this morning on how Bill Gates developed his commencement address for Harvard.

What’s intriguing is how committed Bill is to the process – this is rare in an executive.

A couple of observations:

  1. Pick keynotes your execs can get passionate about. As much as you want to establish a sense of importance, it can only be important to them if it is important to them.
  2. Pick issues, topics, themes that those same execs can get really passionate about. Chances are it isn’t the industry you are in.
  3. Models are useful – speeches by others provide good context and illumination. In Bill’s case: “The speech, delivered at Harvard’s commencement on June 5, 1947, outlined the Marshall Plan, the bold economic relief program that lifted Europe from the ashes of World War II. To Mr. Gates, the general was describing the challenges facing postwar Europe in terms similar to how the software billionaire sees his own, 21st-century crusade: using philanthropy as a catalyst for reducing global inequities in health, wealth and education.”
  4. Tone is as important as content. Don’t confuse the Exec’s tone with the tone required for the audience and speech. Bill groked that: “In late May, Mr. Gates tapped Mr. Buffett again. He wanted to press graduates to become more aware and active in helping solve global inequities but was worried about sounding “overly preachy.” Mr. Gates went to Omaha, Neb., for the annual shareholders meeting of Berkshire Hathaway, Mr. Buffett’s company on which Mr. Gates serves as a board member. After the meeting, Mr. Buffett gave Mr. Gates some tips on delivery and tone.”
  5. The notion of the single speech writer might work in Political circles but you are going to have a greater chance of success by bringing in collaborators. In Bill’s case: “When he started working on the speech in December, he used as a sounding board a Gates Foundation staff member who had written for Slate, the online magazine started by Microsoft. The two traded outlines and drafts of the speech. By the end, Mr. Gates and his staff had met six times for brainstorming sessions, completed six drafts and traded many long emails. Mr. Gates wrote some of the longest ones himself.”
  6. And, no matter how good you are at collaborating and crafting the content, the exec has to be committed to molding the speech into something special. I’m not talking about the standard rehearsal the day or hour before. I’m talking about time spent on putting their thumb-print on it.

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