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A. B. Wilson Communications
Ache for the Impact: Four Steps to Powerful Oratory

By Andrew B. Wilson

I gave this speech at the Peterson Conference of Banking Communicators in St. Louis.

Everywhere you look, the business world is in turmoil and crisis. You are feeling that in the banking world today. Chances are, your bank is trying furiously to capture new territory. Or it is trying desperately to defend what it already has. Or it is trying, maniacally, to do both things at once. You are set upon by all kinds of new competitors, and you are living through a period of rapid regulatory change--comparable to passages in Alice in Wonderland --where there are no set rules or laws to govern the seemingly important matter of public beheadings.

I believe that good speeches can be a critical tool in helping you deal with this fast-changing and confusing environment.

In times of crisis, speeches can be a powerful means of appealing to customers, inspiring employees, admonishing the press, bringing enlightenment to government, and encouraging the fondest hopes of the investment community.

So let it be with you in developing great speeches for your CEO.

For you to enjoy all of the benefits I have mentioned, it must be your task to come up with speeches that are bold and imaginative.

Just as a fair hand was never won by a faint heart, no audience will thrill to a speaker who is cautious and constrained. If you want to move an audience, you must be prepared to be daring and aggressive in presenting your views and beliefs on important issues.

Of course there is always a right way and a wrong way of doing things.

The wrong way was illustrated by the CEO of an embattled company who decided to be extremely aggressive in confronting critics at the annual shareholders meeting.

He began by saying, "I know many of you think that I should resign." That caused half the room to erupt in applause. Waiting for the clapping and cheering to subside, the distraught CEO then said, "Well, I'm not going to do that"--this time provoking a loud chorus of boos.

Imagine Churchill beginning a wartime oration by saying, "I know I have the reputation of being a pompous old windbag, and I know many of you think that I should resign before the Germans get really, really mad."

Nobody could accuse Churchill of backing down from his critics or of being afraid to take chances. However, unlike the unfortunate CEO, Churchill was seldom if ever surprised by the reaction of an audience. He was always in total command of his material (and his audience) as he moved from one stage of a speech to another. Churchill never leaped without knowing exactly where and how he was going to land.

On the topic of oratorical flights and landings, it strikes me that the art of speechmaking has a lot in common with the sport of ski jumping.

This thought came to me last month when I was on a skiing trip in Utah. It would be nice to report that I had this insight as I was soaring high above the trees, with the tips of my skis pointed upward, nearly touching my face. But I am only an average skier.

As it happened, I was sitting on a sofa in front of a roaring fire, leafing through a recent issue of Skiing magazine, when I came across an article entitled, "To Air (that's air--a...i...r) Is Human," by Kristen Ulmer. Ms. Ulmer specializes in what is known as "extreme skiing." In other words, she is a kind of an Evel Knievel on skis.

This may not be everyone's cup of tea, but what Ms. Ulmer has to say about ski jumping is strikingly apropos to public speaking-- particularly public speaking at a time of crisis.

Let's begin with her observation that "There is a narrow line between total control and overwhelming terror." If you really want to go airborne--in skiing or in public speaking--everything depends upon a positive and purposeful attitude. You must "ache for the impact!" because, as Ms. Ulmer says, "Once in the air, he who hesitates is lunch."

So what are the keys to a successful jump?

Every jump has four parts: approach, takeoff, flight time and landing. Every speech has the same four parts. Here--thanks to Ms. Ulmer--are some things to think about at each stage.

Step 1: "Stop Being a Weenie." Success begins with good mental and physical preparation. "Use visualization," she tells us. "Program yourself to believe in success. Spend quality time with your brain before you launch. Don't ski to the jump until your confidence is unquestioned and your mind is focused."

As a speechwriter, it is my job to help the speaker select and develop a bold idea, which looks like a sure winner on two counts: First, in allowing the speaker to speak out of a strong sense of conviction; and second, in being well suited for the intended audience and occasion. The speaker should approach the podium confident in his or her ability to achieve an intended effect. My greatest fear is having a client who goes up there with a terrorized grimace upon his face.

Step 2: "Don't Wet-Noodle Off the Jump; Pop with Energy." All of us know the importance of strong opening, but has anybody ever stated it any better than that?

As Ms. Ulmer notes, "A good pop sets an attacking, I-want-this attitude."

It is useful to think of the launch not as a single event, but only as one part in a tight sequence of events. As you are coming up the scoop or trough, Don't keep watching the bump. "Keep your hands and eyes forward, looking and reaching for the landing."

Step 3: "Soar With The Eagles." So now you are launched. How do you handle the sensation of being airborne? Remember: This is what you came for. As a speaker, this is the time to advance your ideas and arguments and make a strong connection with the audience.

"If you're scared," Ms. Ulmer writes, "the first thing you'll probably do is yank your hands back, as if you want to go back in time and avoid this foolishness. Instead, take control. Get your hands forward. Ache for the impact."

You don't want to make the mistake of going "limp after takeoff." Ms. Ulmer observed a snowboarder who summoned up the courage to jump off the top of a 20-foot cliff, but lost all nerve and composure once in the air. As she recounts, he "came to a dead stop by landing like a lawn dart."

Step 4: "Land with the Jets." You should make a "four-point landing," Ms. Ulmer says, adding helpfully that this "doesn't mean two skis, your butt and the back of your head." It means you plant both poles at the same time that your skis land.

A four-point landing will square your balance, but, as Ms. Ulmer points out, that is worthless unless your hands are forward and your eyes are looking out, not down, however grateful you may be to be back on terra firma.

Having survived the jump--and the landing--you now have the problem of negotiating your way down a steep hill at a touch-down speed of about 80 miles per hour. You should be thinking and reaching ahead. In short, you should think of the landing as a beginning, not an ending.

And that is the way it should be, too, at the conclusion of a speech. The closing moment of a speech should be the most forward-looking moment in the entire performance--causing everyone in the audience to look and reach forward... in a common direction. There should be a strong sense of forward motion.

That is what Churchill did when he ended a speech by saying, "Let us therefore brace ourselves to our duties and so bear ourselves that, if the British Empire and its Commonwealth last for a thousand years, men will still say, `This was their finest hour.'"

In our role as business communicators, we can take inspiration from the fact that we live in an extremely volatile age, which means that we are constantly in the midst of a real or threatened crisis.

Speeches are a tool we can use to help our companies or clients to prevail in the midst of troubled times.

We should strive to develop bold, purposeful speeches that soar with the eagles--and land with the jets.


Copyright © 1998 The Executive Speaker® Company


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Andrew B. Wilson

26 Taylor Place Drive
St. Louis, MO 63108
Phone: (314) 361-1195

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