How to improve the state of the state-of-the-village address

By Shawn Bannon

Vital Speeches Editor David Murray’s recent look at the lackluster rhetoric of state-of-the-village addresses raises questions about what makes for a successful speech on the state of affairs of a city, county, region or even a business. 

State-of-the-village speeches have the potential to unify a divided constituency in the face of common challenges and to inspire people to action in pursuit of shared goals.  Sadly, the troubles of our time—recession, high unemployment, the decline in the housing market and more—have resulted in fewer leaders challenging their “villages” to accomplish great things and more leaders proposing to simply lose as little ground as possible. As David’s article illustrates, these speeches have become real downers.

I’ve had the opportunity over the years to write a number of state-of-the-village speeches. Mostly these have been for corporate clients reporting to employees, customers, shareholders and other constituents about the vitality of their organizations.  And last year I enjoyed the great privilege of writing a state-of-the-village speech that the CEO of the Allegheny Conference on Community Development gave to about 200 private sector leaders concerning the condition of the Pittsburgh region in southwestern Pennsylvania. (Click here to read the 2009 State of the Pittsburgh Region Address.)

What I’ve found is that the important elements and the architecture of these speeches are essentially the same whether you’re reporting on the vitality of an international financial services company or the strength of a mid-sized city struggling through a recession. 

So, what makes for a successful, inspirational state-of-the-village speech?

1. Share the stories of your success. First and foremost, these speeches must report on what’s gone right in the previous year. 

Has your company signed a number of big clients or expanded to new markets?  Has your community attracted a new factory or provided social services to residents hit particularly hard by the recession?  Even in difficult times, there are always stories that demonstrate what you’ve achieved and what is possible.  Pride is an incredible motivator, so tell your employees, residents or other stakeholders why they should be proud.

2. Honestly acknowledge disappointment and challenges. No matter how successful your company/city/region has been, the work of leadership is never done. 

It would be unthinkable to give a state-of-the-village speech today that doesn’t acknowledge the challenges of the economy. Did declining sales result in layoffs? Is your city’s homeless population on the rise? Leaders can’t lead if they’ve got their heads in the sand or if they’ve turned a blind eye to the concerns of their constituents, and it’s essential that any good state-of-the-village speech demonstrate the speaker’s grasp of the challenges ahead.

3. Share your plan for action. It’s not enough to outline the challenges of the times; in troubled waters leaders have to be able to convince their constituents that the ship will not sink on their watch. 

What is your company or region doing to stay afloat? Have you initiated a reorganization or shifted resources from struggling lines of business? Have you arranged to retrain displaced workers and make the regional workforce more attractive to employers?  Or are you scaling back city services to make up for budget shortfalls? In difficult times, a leader who exhibits a pragmatic plan for navigating through the challenges of the day will earn the credibility to speak optimistically about the opportunities of tomorrow.

4. Inspire hope through vision. The element that’s lacking in too many recent state-of-the-village speeches is vision. Speakers fail because even if they have a plan for managing through the current economic crisis, their goals seem only to be to get to the other side of the tempest. But why did the chicken cross the road? Why did our great grandparents brave oceans to reach America? What great things do we dream of accomplishing when our fortunes turn? People don’t want to believe that we toil today merely to live another day. We hunger for vision in leadership—vision that gives us purpose and inspires hope of a brighter future. 

Too many “leaders” are afraid to venture far out on that limb … afraid the vision they share will be rejected or even ridiculed. So they shy away from their obligation to inspire.  They may prove themselves capable managers in tumultuous times, but they fail as leaders when they pass up such an important opportunity to share a vision of the future they hope to create.

As David writes, when times are good, every leader wants to deliver the state-of-the-village speech. But real leaders know that there are opportunities in every challenge. In times of crisis, as a people we need the strength, integrity, creativity and vision of our leaders to guide our way. And a state-of-the-village address, well-conceived and delivered with confidence in the face of crisis, is an opportunity to marshal support for an agenda and a vision that promise survival today and the hope of prosperity in which we all can share tomorrow.

Shawn Bannon is president and CEO of Bannon Communications.

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