Monday, June 21

Talking On Target: A Lesson In Public Speaking

Wondering why President Obama continues to slide in the polls and Tony Hayward, CEO of BP, was ousted from the daily operations of the BP oil spill? Both men delivered poor performances in public speaking and it undermined any faith in their ability lead.

One came across like a lawyer at best, administrator at worst, mostly concerned about an obscured vision of the future. The other came across as being overly coached by lawyers, paralyzed by an obscured vision of the past. It seems obvious that neither men are living in the present as both seem out of touch with the public.

An Analysis Of President Obama's BP Oil Spill Speech.

If there is any doubt that President Obama's BP oil spill speech was the low water mark of presidential speeches since he took office, a new study of Presidential speeches by HCD Research confirms it. On a scale of 1-7, the speech rated 4.4 among Americans, marking a continual decline in the president's likability, believability, and sincerity. The more he speaks, the less he's liked.

What went wrong for the one with the once silver tongue?

While less than scientific, a word cloud of the transcript reveals the flawed strategy behind the speech. The transcript wasn't about the oil spill crisis. It was about clean energy.

The decision to use the spill as a platform for petroleum reform rather than what Americans wanted to hear — how will we plug the leak, mitigate the clean up, and provide help for those affected — was flawed. No matter how you slice the speech, President Obama's emphasis fell just short of calling this disaster a failing of the American people for not being more aggressive on alternative energy.

While there is a time and place for everything, the administration clearly missed that this was not the time or place. Post polling shows the public believes overwhelmingly that President Obama has failed in handling the BP oil spill. It also raised severe doubts about his ability to handle a future crisis. Worse for Obama, there is ample evidence to suggest long-term damage compounded by continued missteps.

After his speech, his second term re-election outlook dropped an additional one or two percent among ALL political groupings (Democrats, Republicans, and Independents). While it is a long way until the next election, Obama's re-election chances are increasingly grim, with 27 percent of his own party unwilling to vote for him again. More than 61 percent of Independents and 91 percent of Republicans feel the same way.

Was there anything redeeming about Obama's speech? Yes. The sticking point picked up by a friendly media was to press BP and create a $20 billion escrow fund. When BP agreed a few days later, it was a minor victory among an ocean of missteps. Obama said he would make BP pay, they agreed. Of course, they intended to all along.

An Analysis Of Tony Hayward's BP Oil Spill Testimony.

Although Hayward's testimony performance has earned the scorn of the American public and pushed aside (hat tip: Geoff Livingston) as the man in charge of the company’s response, most media covered only a portion of the story. Hayward's prepared testimony wasn't all that far away from capturing public trust. It was the question/answer/statement section that crushed his opportunity.

The prepared testimony itself, at a glance, focused on the facts with an emphasis on the current BP response. Where it still missed, however, was that Hayward doesn't have the answers Americans want. They want to know precisely what went wrong and who is liable, facts that will still take months to sort out (beyond the most obvious, of course).

Another aspect missing from the testimony was genuine remorse and an apparent inability to provide reasoned responses to the congressional grandstanding. Instead, focusing on coaching from attorneys, Hayward frequently appeared to duck and dodge the questions as if he had nothing more to say.

Was there anything redeeming about Hayward's stint? Yes. While the American media played up his lack of answers, the international media saw it differently.

All they saw were a few American congressional leaders working hard to paint BP and Hayward as public enemy number one. So, while Hayward might be performing on U.S. soil, the global community chalked up the exercise as American congressmen looked stupid and petty in the hopes of trying to pad their own re-election campaigns.

What Can Be Learned From Public Speaking In A Crisis?

Stay on topic. Stay on topic. Stay on topic.

Winston Churchill did not address policy change or progressive ideas in his speech "We Shall Fight on the Beaches." He did speak of his country's failures in allowing the roots of fascism to take hold in Germany or in acting too late as the Nazi party expanded its reach across the Europe. He stayed on topic, without concern for how many words were in each sentence. His audience got it.

"We shall go on to the end, we shall fight in France, we shall fight on the seas and oceans, we shall fight with growing confidence and growing strength in the air, we shall defend our Island, whatever the cost may be, we shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender, and even if, which I do not for a moment believe, this Island or a large part of it were subjugated and starving, then our Empire beyond the seas, armed and guarded by the British Fleet, would carry on the struggle, until, in God’s good time, the New World, with all its power and might, steps forth to the rescue and the liberation of the old."

John F. Kennedy did not shrink from responsibility in ushering forth a new era and new frontier, crying that a minority of legislators were somehow undermining the majority. No, instead of focusing on division, he focused on unified ideas that could bring people to solve the current crisis of the day. His audience got it.

"In the long history of the world, only a few generations have been granted the role of defending freedom in its hour of maximum danger. I do not shrink from this responsibility — I welcome it. I do not believe that any of us would exchange places with any other people or any other generation. The energy, the faith, the devotion which we bring to this endeavor will light our country and all who serve it — and the glow from that fire can truly light the world.

And so, my fellow Americans: ask not what your country can do for you — ask what you can do for your country.

My fellow citizens of the world: ask not what America will do for you, but what together we can do for the freedom of man."

Where Obama And Hayward Fail Most Miserably.

They both lack passion and inspired nothing. Instead, they drifted away from their respective responsibility of communication: Obama as a choice and Hayward because he doesn't know what Americans want to know. Worse, they offer up that "nothing more can be done than what they are doing." Americans, they say, need to wait patiently and place faith in their leadership.

That hardly works in America. The citizens are used to taking action when faced with a crisis. And when government doesn't deliver, they tend to take matters into their own hands, resenting those who failed to act in a manner greater than the crisis. Ergo, if the crisis requires a hammer plan, they expect the President to fix it with a sledgehammer plan.

Don't these guys get it? Handling a crisis is not public relations. It's about taking immediate action that is grounded in the present. You can lynch anyone you want, but put the fire out first. You can use every keyword on the planet, but your brand still sucks while the leak gushes oil.

One final thought, it seems to me that both men miss one word that has been included in virtually all great speeches. The word is "WE." And yet, both Obama and Hayward seem to avoid it. The only exception is that Obama uses "we" when referring to his administration and Hayward says "we" when he is talking about his company.

Don't these guys get it? This isn't an "us and them" story with the American public listed under the "them" column. Those people down there, whether funded by BP or directed by the White House, are Americans doing the work. They don't visit the spill area now and again. They live there, every day.

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