5 Tips CEOs Can Take From Obama’s Inaugural Address

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There’s a lot a Chief Executive can learn from the chief of the executive branch, and President Obama is very much like the CEO of a company that has weathered a string of weak quarters. There’s been some improvement under his watch, but the shareholders only narrowly voted to keep him on.

He’s been given another chance to turn things around, and yesterday the President got a chance to send a message to his board and voting shareholders (535 Congressmen and 311 million Americans). Here are 5 tips CEOs can pick up from our Commander in Chief:

1. Preparation

“We the people…”

We live in a 140-character age, and speeches are rarer and more distinctive than ever. A speech is a special event, so your audience will be paying extra attention.

Obama spent weeks researching and incorporating the best parts of past inaugural speeches into his own. Look to your or other companies’ pasts to find ideas that have worked before. Obama’s inaugural was brimming with quotes and ideas from the Declaration of Independence, Bill of Rights, and Presidents Lincoln and FDR’s inaugurals. Look back to your company’s beginnings and see which principles have remained constant and which ideas you can carry forward.

2. Delivery

“Let us answer the call of history…”

For your listeners to believe in you, you must first believe in yourself. Even by presidential standards, Obama takes a very active hand in writing his own speeches, and it’s much easier to sound authentic when you’re delivering your own words. Your communications team can help you with style, but the substance of your words will be stronger if it comes from you.

Even a speaker as experienced as Obama takes ample time to rehearse. No matter how busy you are, don’t scrimp on prep time. Even if you’re in the habit of speaking from notes rather than from a script, practice delivering the speech in full. A speech of this kind is less about conferring information than it is about transferring energy- a vision is more than just data.

While the text of your speech will get the most attention, don’t neglect appearances. Thanks to ubiquitous video, speeches are seen as much as they are heard. Though you may not be able to choose your venue, you should practice to develop a natural, energetic delivery. Watching video recordings of yourself lets you immediately spot flaws and improve your technique.

obamafist.png3. Balance change with continuity

“We have always understood that when times change, so must we; that fidelity to our founding principles requires new responses to new challenges…”

People resist big changes- even when big changes might be necessary. Obama mentioned very big plans for tackling issues ranging from the environment to immigration, but instead of presenting his proposals as sharp breaks from the past, the President couched them in terms of our country’s oldest principles.

Shutting down a factory or formerly successful product line seems less drastic if adaptability has always been a core trait of your company. Obama acknowledges the problems we face with the deficit, the war in Afghanistan, and inequality, but he places them in the larger context of challenges America has overcome before. We beat the British; we survived a civil war; we defeated fascism and communism; we built the world’s greatest economy. Whatever challenges your company faces will seem less daunting in the context of past trials.

4. Be memorable

“We cannot mistake absolutism for principle, or substitute spectacle for politics, or treat name-calling as reasoned debate.”

Even with speeches as great as Lincoln’s or JFK’s, people tend to only remember a few highlights- “the better angels of our nature,” “the torch has been passed to a new generation,” “ask not what your country can do for you…”

Speeches are no longer written for a single audience at a single moment. They’re written for the evening news, the morning papers, blogs, Facebook, Twitter. Give them some words that’ll stick in people’s minds and echo across the different media for weeks to come. Strong contrasts (“with malice toward none, with charity for all”) are especially memorable. Ideally people will be able to look back a few months or years from now and say, “Remember that ‘ask not what your country can do for you speech?’ That was the turning point.”

5. A call to action

“We must act… you and I, as citizens, have the power to set this country’s course.”

The Greek statesman Pericles once complained, “When the people hear me speak, they say ‘listen to how well he speaks!’ When [rival] Demosthenes speaks, the people say, ‘let us march!’”

You want to leave your audience with more than a sense that you’re well spoken; the purpose of your speech is to compel change through action. Obama calls on us to “shape the debates of our time” and embrace our common mission. Your listeners, too, should get the sense that they are all working together toward a shared vision and a common interest. Whether it’s to encourage innovation and collaboration in your company or to confront global climate change, every speech should exhort its listeners to go out and change the world.

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