Last week I returned from Europe, where I addressed five audiences, each theoretically open but practically skeptical of my claim that the only modern purpose of a speech is to share an emotion with an audience. To make my point, I showed speeches from Winston Churchill, Charles de Gaulle, Barbara Jordan, John F. Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson and Fred Rogers among other leaders who knew how to comfort and charm an audience, show how courageous and committed they were to the shared goals of their community, now and forever.
The Europeans scratched their own nodding heads; the Q&As were all “yes, but.”
Despite the wide variety of examples I showed them, these speechwriters and communication aides suspected—on behalf of their speakers, for sure—that The Glib American was here to convince them to be emotive circus clowns. As I learned (and wrote) the last time I gave my jam session overseas,
Americans are big on splashy speeches for two reasons, theorized the former diplomat, sometime speechwriter and full-time peanut gallery pundit Charles Crawford. “You’re used to communicating with immigrants who don’t speak very good English. And … you’ve got to have a show! In America, everybody wants a show!”
Whereas in the United Kingdom, and even more so in Europe, what everybody wants—well, what everybody expects—is an objective recitation of the facts, the policy, the idea. “Yes, people like to be entertained,” said veteran U.K. political and corporate speechwriter Stuart Mole. “But there is nothing as exciting as ideas.”
So I was damned careful to get across my belief that an idea is the table stakes for a speech—and for a leader’s op/ed piece, blog post or even Tweet. But that in the age of everything from TV to Internet to YouTube, the only reason to hold an event as insanely inefficient as a speech—really, hundreds of people are going to put their lives on hold and get in airplanes and fly to one place to hear one person talk for an hour?—is for the audience to be able to look the speaker in the eye, and look at one another in the eye, and feel the mood in the room and have a spiritual or at least emotional experience.
And before the week is out, Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer confirms all their suspicions of what I’m really advocating, with his utterly self-indulgent, perfectly idea-free emotional seizure in front of 13,000 employees who were happily in the dark, so we could only hear the cheers of some, and not see the eye-rolling of others.
I assure you, this speech is obnoxious to me as it is to you, and it’s worse than being boring. Actually, it’s the same as being boring.
What did Microsoft employees get out of this in exchange for their time? They already knew their CEO—their departing CEO—cries at supermarket openings and card tricks. He tells them they work for “the greatest company in the world,” and asks them to “soak it in.” Soak what in—an unfounded, self-interested opinion screeched about a company by a man who has worked there and nowhere else for 33 years? He thanks them—all 13,000 at once—without giving a single example of how any one Microsoft employee gave him “the time of his life.”
If a mid-level Microsoft accountant behaved this way at his retirement party, people would assume he had too much to drink—to keep themselves from worrying about his mental health. But the CEO runs around in front of everyone incoherently, and we’re supposed think it’s “genuine”?
Even we Americans have our limits, my European friends.
Well, some of us do. —DM