10 qualities for executive keynotes

10 Key Qualities for Executive Addresses

This is your big moment. You’ve been named CEO or elected president of an association or chosen as the head of a college. You are now faced with giving your followers some sort of address. Thoughts race through your head, “What in the world do I even say? How will I appear to them? Will they like me? Will they believe me?”

The executive’s address is a key leadership moment where many of your followers will confirm or reject their initial impressions of you for good or for bad. It’s your chance to set the tone of the upcoming year and steer the direction of the group. When planning your executive address—whether to a company, professional organization, college, or constituency—make sure that it contains the following 10 elements. Unsurprisingly, they are the same 10 that anyone would want in a leader.

Honesty: No one wants a leader who is going to hide the truth or true to sugarcoat it. You should own up to any problems faced in the past years or obstacles to overcome in the year ahead. Vulnerability doesn’t make you weak, it makes you stronger.

Humility: You’re now the leader, but the speech is not about you. Your followers do not want to hear about your resume or long list of past accomplishments. Sure, provide some context of where you’re coming from, but approach the speech with a perspective of serving rather than bragging.

Positive: Your followers are looking for hope and a positive message. You don’t need to gloss over upcoming obstacles and you don’t need to keep it strictly informational. Talk about what’s possible and what your group can achieve. Talk about your company’s past accomplishments and how those have laid the groundwork for another successful year.

Realistic: Don’t promise the world. You aren’t going to increase sales tenfold within the first quarter. Set goals for your followers that are realistic but also a bit of a stretch—ones that will cause the group to grow as they reach for them but ones that are so insurmountable as to have your followers doubt whether or not they can achieve those goals. Sure, some people out there claim that you have to set unimaginable goals and those will ultimately motivate people to achieve them. But your credibility is on the line. If you’ve done things like that in the past, sure go ahead. Chances are, you want to keep your credibility and would be much better with what’s possible.

Brief: Keep it under 20 minutes. The temptation is there to say everything. You want to give all of your ideas to your followers in one grand speech. Some executive addresses surpass the one hour mark! You now have to compete with smart phones and tablets—once they come out you know your time is up.

Entertaining: Endless recitations of facts and figures are never in someone’s description of “entertaining.” While there is nothing wrong with bragging about last year’s sales numbers or talking about this year’s forecast, people still want a grand arching vision rather than an accounting meeting. Use stories, audience participation, and even videos, to add variety to your address.

Visionary: While you want to keep the speech realistic, don’t shy away from setting out a long-term vision of what you imagine the group can become. This doesn’t have to be something you complete in one year, but a vision for how the group will last into the future.

Grateful: Make sure to thank the people in the room for their hard work. Thank the unsung heroes of the organization and the people who helped build it up. Don’t dwell too much on thanking everyone, but recognize hard work and success when you see it.

Group above individual: Along the same line as showing gratitude, leaders often want to thank individuals who stood out from others in the past. Or they want to thank people who got them to where they are today. This can be a challenge for any leader. If you want to thank a mentor or special person in your life, then go for it. But when you recognize individuals within the company, others may feel left out that you didn’t recognize them for their equal or even greater accomplishments.

Inspirational: If your speech has all of the qualities above, it will be nothing short of inspirational. Keep in mind the key goal of the executive address: You want to inspire rather than inform. Take advice from Mario Cuomo, “Campaign in poetry, govern in prose.” Your address is closer to an inaugural speech than a boardroom strategic planning session.

Your first address to your followers is a pivotal moment in your tenure as their leader. It’s your chance to set your vision and tone of your leadership. Leave your followers with a great first impression and good results will follow.

Photo credit: giorgio raffaelli on flickr

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5 commencement speeches that aren't full of cliches

5 Commencement Speeches That Aren’t Full of Cliches

“Follow your dreams/passion”

“Never give up”

“Look inside you”

“It’s the journey not the destination”

“Hard times make you a better person”

“Choose the road less traveled”

“Oh the places you’ll go”

“Think outside the box”

Pick any theme above and you’ll undoubtedly find it in 95% of the commencement speeches ever given. These tired themes turn commencement speeches into 30-minute self-help seminars that audiences forget about 5 seconds after the speaker’s last line.

But there are other messages out there that don’t take the typical tack and end up giving timeless advice that’s actually worth a damn.

Here are my top 5 commencement speeches that are worth listening to even if you aren’t graduating from college. Each one is just a bit different from the usual commencement fare—and that’s a good thing.

  1. Neil Gaiman: University of the Arts, 2012

Make good art.

I’m serious. Husband runs off with a politician? Make good art. Leg crushed and then eaten by mutated boa constrictor? Make good art. IRS on your trail? Make good art. Cat exploded? Make good art. Somebody on the Internet thinks what you do is stupid or evil or it’s all been done before? Make good art. Probably things will work out somehow, and eventually time will take the sting away, but that doesn’t matter. Do what only you do best. Make good art.

Make it on the good days too.

  1. David Foster Wallace, Kenyon College, 2005

But I’m going to posit to you that the liberal arts cliché turns out not to be insulting at all, because the really significant education in thinking that we’re supposed to get in a place like this isn’t really about the capacity to think, but rather about the choice of what to think about. If your total freedom of choice regarding what to think about seems too obvious to waste time discussing, I’d ask you to think about fish and water, and to bracket for just a few minutes your skepticism about the value of the totally obvious.


  1. Robert Krulwhich, UC-Berkeley, 2011

Suppose, instead of waiting for a job offer from the New Yorker, suppose next month, you go to your living room, sit down, and just do what you love to do. If you write, you write. You write a blog. If you shoot, find a friend, someone you know and like, and the two of you write a script. You make something. No one will pay you. No one will care, No one will notice, except of course you and the people you’re doing it with. But then you publish, you put it on line, which these days is totally doable, and then… you do it again.


  1. Joss Whedon, Wesleyan, 2013

This is a good commencement speech because I’m figuring it’s only going to go up from here. It can only get better, so this is good. It can’t get more depressing. You have, in fact, already begun to die. You look great. Don’t get me wrong. And you are youth and beauty. You are at the physical peak. Your bodies have just gotten off the ski slope on the peak of growth, potential, and now comes the black diamond mogul run to the grave. And the weird thing is your body wants to die. On a cellular level, that’s what it wants. And that’s probably not what you want.


  1. Amy Poehler, Harvard, 2011

Even though, as a class, you are smart, you are still allowed to say, “I don’t know.” Just because you are in high demand, you are still allowed to say, “Let me get back to you.” This will come in handy when your parents ask when you plan to move out of their basement and you answer, “I don’t know. Let me get back to you.” Which leads me to my final thought: would it kill you to be nicer to your parents? They have sacrificed so much for you, and all they want you to do is smile and take a picture with your weird cousins. Do that for them. And with less eye-rolling, please. And so, class of 2011, it is time to leave. Oprah has spoken.

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Photo credit: @Jason Bache on flickr

communication resolutions for executives

10 Communications Resolutions for Executives in 2016

Rather than resolving to work out more or eat healthier (both noble goals), why not focus on professional skills, too? The start of 2016 is a great time to think about how you have communicated with your staff and company over the last year. Once everyone is back from the holidays, you can take this opportunity to renew not just your own communication skills but those of the whole company.

  1. I resolve to use more stories when communicating.

The easiest way to make a talk forgettable is to simply include nothing more than data and information. Even new policies can be livened up by using hypothetical examples that tell a story of what to do and what not to do. When looking to communicate a point, ask yourself, “Is there a story that I can tell that will get this idea across?”

  1. I resolve to drop the jargon and business clichés

Stand out from your colleagues by refusing to use the tired and boring words that soak up much of the white space on any memo and fill the gaps between great ideas in too many speeches. Start banning the following words and anything remotely close to them: Disrupt, low-hanging fruit, circle back, deep dive, synergy, move the needle, open the kimono, drill down…you get the idea.

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general macarthur speech

How to Use Repetition: A Lesson from General Douglas MacArthur

It’s unfortunate, but audiences will remember very little of what you say. To combat this, you must find a theme and repeat it throughout. Your theme does not have to be much more than a single phrase or sentence; it could even be as small as three words as General Douglas MacArthur uses in his speech: Duty, Honor, Country. His key move with “Duty, Honor, Country,” is to use the phrase as punctuation; he often ends importance sections and sentences with those three words.

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Do you know what to do in these 3 scary question and answer situations?

Do you know what to do in these 3 scary question and answer situations?

Have you ever had the following thoughts when preparing for the question and answer session of a talk?

“I’ll look like a fool if I don’t know the answer to a question.”

“How will I fill the awkward silence if no one asks anything?”

“What if I can’t get to every question in the room? People will think I’m a jerk if I don’t take their questions.”

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Wedding Toast Tips

7 Wedding Toast Brainstorming Prompts

“I just don’t know where to start.”

That’s the most common phrase I hear from my clients when they are trying to write a wedding toast. The best place to start is by telling stories that show what a great person the bride or groom is and what he or she means to you. Plus, some stories will naturally be funny or sentimental. You don’t need to worry about memorizing groan-worthy one-liners.

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