The power from the podium

Corporate speechwriters are taking a few lessons from the political world.

Corporate speechwriters are taking a few lessons from the political world.

Like politicians, corporate leaders today speak to a multitude of audiences, from employees to other executives to the media. It's no wonder, then, that corporate speechwriters look to political speeches for a trick or two.

One big lesson to draw from effective political speeches is to keep it simple, both in the number of ideas expressed and the words used to describe them, notes Burson-Marsteller EVP Josh Gottheimer, a former speechwriter for President Bill Clinton and Ford Motor chairman Bill Ford.

"Some of these speeches you read try to do too much - they try to get everything in but the kitchen sink," Gottheimer says. Moreover, "your language should not be flowery or over the top. Clinton used to say, 'You can talk big thoughts without using big words.' I really believe that, too."

Crucial, too, many experts note, is telling a story using memorable analogies. Marilynn Mobley, Edelman Atlanta SVP and a former executive speechwriter for IBM, notes that few people automatically associate former Vice President Al Gore with great oratory, yet his repeated use in speeches of the term "lockbox" to describe his plan for protecting Social Security was widely quoted and even spoofed on Saturday Night Live, achieving a key aim of any speech: that listeners afterward remember and repeat what they've heard.

"A great speech has great rhythm, and by that, I mean repetition," Mobley says. "You hear a lot of repetition in political speeches, the most famous example of course being [Martin Luther King Jr.'s] 'I Have a Dream.' Repetition gives the audience something that, when it falls on the ear, you capture it and want to hold onto it, and then you want to share it."

Sometimes the circumstances of a corporate speech don't warrant the rousing emotion of the most famous political speeches, notes Qorvis Communicators senior director and head writer Seth Pietras, who writes about 60 corporate speeches annually.

An automobile executive on the assembly line floor may well want to inspire his or her workers with the importance of their work and the future of the company, but in the boardroom or in front of colleagues at a trade show, a more sedate tone might be better.

But an executive without the speaking skills of, say, the Rev. Jesse Jackson, probably shouldn't try to give a modern-day equivalent of Henry V's St. Crispin's Day speech, for fear of turning off the audience. Whether speechmaking is corporate or political, experts say the writer always needs to know how the speaker talks - the general tone and rhythm of his or her speech.

"You have to look at the limitations or capabilities of the person giving the speech," says Pietras. "If it's a CEO who just can't speak publicly, you want to make it short and sweet. Or if your CFO is a better speechgiver, maybe it's important for him to give the speech. The important thing is, you don't want to sound disingenuous, like it's forced."

But given the public attention devoted to corporate executives today, as companies must articulate their philosophies on issues much broader than simply the products or services they provide - what role does the company play in global warming, for instance, or the health and welfare of part-time employees - corporate executives ill-suited to public speaking may not advance very far in their careers.

Especially in situations where third-party groups, such as environmentalists or labor unions, excoriate corporations for failing to be responsible to workers or the community or other constituencies, corporations simply must have executives able to win over a crowd, says Dittus Communications VP and chief of staff Mike Waldron, who has written speeches for various lawmakers, government officials, and companies.

"If you look at politics today, it's not dissimilar to what corporate leaders face when they're speaking," Waldron says. "You need a vehicle that breaks through the clutter. For politicians, the bottom line is the vote and how does one capture the attention and differentiate from the pack - and the difference is that they have big ideas that people care about and can relate to."

Technique tips


Tell a story that has personal meaning for the speaker

Use analogies that help make concepts memorable

Make sure to give speeches rhythm


Use jargon or words that are too complex

Pack too many ideas into a speech

Write a rousing speech if the speaker can't deliver it comfortably

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