Every year, Vital Speeches of the Day distributes awards for best speechwriting. Named the Cicero Awards for the Roman statesman who called rhetoric a “great art,” the awards recognize the speechwriters and speakers who inspire their audiences.
While most of the 2019 award-winners fall into the type of categories you’d expect to associate with soaring rhetoric—commencement, education, eulogy, motivational, military— some of the best speeches were delivered in venues that aren’t known for great speechmaking. They act as a reminder that any opportunity to face an audience is an opportunity to lift them to another level—even if the venue might be something as ‘mundane’ as an analyst call, investor update or employee meeting.
For more insight, I called David Murray, the publisher of Vital Speeches and executive director of the Professional Speechwriters Association. “Most CEOs waste the opportunity. They spew out a bunch of numbers that they could have sent out in a slide deck. They need to be more strategic,” Murray advises. “If you don’t take advantage of this opportunity as a speaker, you’ve wasted it.”
Murray says the committee of professional speechwriters who judge the submissions keep the following question top of mind: Could the speech have been delivered by any other speaker, to any other audience, at any other time in history? If the answer is “no,” then it has the makings of a fine speech. After all, a great speech or presentation is unique, strategic and timely.
Here are two examples from the 2019 Cicero award-winners that demonstrate how words can transform a common meeting into an uncommon experience for the audience.
Unleashing the Spirit of Innovation at an Employee Meeting
In the category of ‘employee meeting,’ the winning speech was written by speechwriter Teresa Zumwald. The words were spoken by Richard Schwartz, the chairman of the board for Winsupply. It was delivered to support services staff at a town hall meeting in Dayton, Ohio. Again, it’s not the type of presentation most people would associate with inspiring rhetoric, but inspire it did.
“The other day I was browsing the web and came upon an interesting article about the Wright Brothers and their inventions,” Schwartz begins. “Most people say offhand, ‘The Wright Brothers invented the airplane!’ But in reality? That’s not quite true. The Wright Brothers invented a flying machine they could control in the air. Their invention was all about control…This idea—that our ability to master a set of fundamentals leads to innovation and collective success—is what I want to talk to you about today.”
The speaker then explains why mastering the fundamentals will free the staff to innovate and contribute to their collective success over time. Keep in mind that Winsupply is a privately-held company that gives entrepreneurs around the country—local owners—a stake in the company’s overall success.
The speaker ends the speech with a rousing call to action:
“Staying true to these fundamentals is the only way to deliver the American Dream to a lot of people…It’s up to YOU to protect and defend this unique and different opportunity—the Spirit of Opportunity— that’s been handed down to you. It’s up to YOU to master the fundamentals. It’s up to YOU to continue to innovate. It’s up to YOU to work hard together as equity partners to build collective success—now and in the future.”
According to Murray, the speech stood out because it was tailored to place and audience—The Wright Brothers were from Dayton. The speaker told a personal story that ties into the place and the theme of the speech. And the conclusion of the speech makes a unique emotional impact “that can only happen in a physical roomful of people experiencing the words shoulder-to-shoulder with their colleagues.”
Capturing Hearts at a Lunch Meeting
The award-winning entry in the category of ‘analyst/investor meeting’ was written by speechwriter Amanda Todd and spoken by Rebecca Blank, the Chancellor of the University of Wisconsin—Madison. It was delivered to the university’s board of visitors, a select group of stakeholders who advise and support the mission of the university.
The speech begins with statistical information on the state of the university: “We just welcomed the largest and most diverse freshman class in our history—6,800 students selected from a record-setting 43,000 applicants…”
According to Murray, the speech is pretty conventional until the speaker launches into stories about students, faculty members and others who give the university its unique purpose.
For example, the speaker tells the story of Hannah, a Fulbright scholar who recently graduated. The story is meant to highlight the university’s attributes through the lens of one of its students. Chancellor Blank continues:
“She [Hannah] tells the story of how reluctant she was to come here. She grew up in Appleton. Her mom’s a hairdresser and her dad works in a factory. She was the first in her family to go to college and she wanted to go out of state, but the family couldn’t afford it. She says the thing that surprised her most about UW is how very small it actually felt, and how she could get to know her professors, and how—every time she needed help, she found it. And that’s no accident. We’ve been very intentional about building programs that allow our students to grow and thrive here without getting overwhelmed.”
According to Murray, speeches don’t achieve much anymore—except for the very thing we need most in our society—human connection. Any time you have the opportunity to address a group of people face-to-face is an opportunity to lift them from their everyday lives and inspire them to higher levels of achievement. Don’t waste it.