A couple of days ago President-Elect Obama gave his first speech since being elected. Without getting into the all of the political details, from a leadership communication perspective, I believe his goals were to:
1. Recognize the current economic situation as less than desirable.
2. Create a sense of urgency
3. Outline a plan of action.
From a presentation or speaking perspective this high level outline makes a great deal of sense, and I believe he did hit all three of these points. I started to write a post about this speech, based on the media coverage of the speech, but I decided I should read the speech first. From reading it I learned two things which are important to us as leaders whenever we speak to influence.
1. The effectiveness of the message of our speech is determined by the audience, not by how we write or deliver the message.
2. It is important that we don’t overstate the negative in creating our case.
Let’s look at each of these lessons from the speech – and the reaction to it.
The media coverage of the speech has focused on things like “Obama warns of worsening economy” (Chicago Sun-Times). This portion of the speech (the current situation plus creating a sense of urgency) was about 12% of the speech by my word count, yet it has received the lion’s share of the media coverage.
I do not propose to know President-Elect Obama’s complete intent for the speech, but I’m sure he would like more coverage on his proposal than on the negative message that “We start 2009 in the midst of a crisis unlike any we have seen in our lifetime, a crisis that has only deepened over the last few weeks.” And yet the audience (the media and then the rest of us) has focused far more than 12% of our attention on the dire nature of the situation.
Of course our economy is weaker than anyone would like it to be, this is a fact people with any political viewpoint would share, and yes, as a speaker the President-Elect needed to share that point to get to his proposals. But I am afraid Mr. Obama made a mistake that many speakers make – he oversold the situation.
If our economy is “a crisis unlike any we have seen in our lifetime” then most would look at three economic indicators as important to this argument: Interest rates, unemployment and inflation. Let’s look at a bit of data on all three.
Interest Rates. Assuming that the benchmark measure is the prime rate, it currently stands at 3.25%. The historical peak of the prime was in 1981 at 20.50%. It has not been lower than it is currently since March of 1954. (source)
Unemployment. The latest unemployment figures that came out yesterday are 7.2 %, yet the rate from November of 1982 – June of 1983 was above 10% and was at or above the current percentage from May of 1980 until November of 1985. (source)
Inflation. The inflation rate was 1.07% in November 2008 (the last data announced, and the predictions I read are for inflation rates to remain flat for at least the next several months. Compare this to annual interest rates above 10% for 1979-1981. (source)
All of this tells me that unless you lifetime is something less than 25 years, Mr. Obama oversold his case. And in part because of that oversall, that is what people are focusing on.
(Note – before I move on to the leadership lessons for us, let me say that I know the current economic climate is tough, and has often been stated, “it is a recession when your neighbor loses their job and a depression when you lose yours.” – so your personal perspective may be different than mine.)
An Important Question
Are you more motivated by a positive picture of the future, or of a focus on “gloom and doom”? Assuming your answer is the same as mine, and everyone I’ve ever asked this question of, isn’t it more effective in our leadership communication to focus on the positives, especially for the future? President-Elect Obama’s speech does talk about his vision for the future – in quite glowing – though measured – terms (by my count about 14% of the speech), but in the end, that doesn’t matter much because the audience determined that the speech was about the “economic crisis”, not a “bright future after some tough times”.
My suggestion to you as a leader is that you want to give the second speech, not the first – if you want to create movement and change in a positive direction as opposed to stress, uncertainty and fear.
Here are three things you can do to make sure you are crafting the right message and it is received in the way you intend it. (Consider these the leadership activities associated with each speech or presentation that you give.)
1. write down your single biggest goal or message for the talk. What is the “sound bite” message you want people to leave with?
2. State the case for change, but don’t oversell it – it might seem effective at the moment, but make sure your message is aligned with your overall goal for the speech.
3. Make sure you open and close your presentation with the core of your key message – to do everything you can to manage the message that is sent (and to avoid having it buried inside the speech).
These actions will take time, but taking them will improve your leadership influence and make all aspects of your organizational leadership, communication and change efforts more successful.