Official Blog of Bannon Leadership Consulting Founder Shawn Bannon

Lackluster State-of-the-Village Speeches Suggest Alarming Decline in Quality of Leadership

Earlier this month, David Murray, a respected voice in the field of speechwriting and leadership communications, wrote an article for The Huffington Post about the lackluster state of recent “state-of-the-village” speeches.  David is editor of Vital Speeches of the Day and is the former editor of Ragan CommunicationsSpeechwriters Newsletter.  He probably reads more speeches in a week than most people read in a year, and his opinion on these things is highly regarded.

A state-of-the-village address is essentially a local version of the State-of-the-Union (SotU) speeches with which we’re all familiar.  They’re usually thought of as speeches by mayors regarding the conditions of their towns or cities, but I think David would agree that we could reasonably expand that understanding to include similar addresses about the state of affairs for counties, whole metropolitan regions and even international businesses.

In his piece for The Huffington Post, David suggests that the challenges of the 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 calling for resiliency and cooperation to simply lose as little ground as possible. 

While David’s focus is largely on the rhetoric, I’d go a step further to suggest that we’re seeing not only a decline in the quality of state-of-the-village speeches in these difficult times but, more alarming, a retreat from the responsibilities of real leadership.  As we’ve seen at virtually every level of government over the years, the ability to give a great speech does not a leader make, but great leaders can and must use rhetoric to great effect in times of great challenge. 

State-of-the-village speeches, like the president’s annual SotU address, 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.  Unfortunately, the SotU has become little more than a political tool for outlining one party’s agenda and is rarely considered a triumph of either rhetoric or leadership.  Many speechwriters, including a number of those whose resumes include time at the White House, lament that the address often reads more like a grocery list than a speech intended to shape the future of the free world … that it accentuates divisions and lacks real vision.

Sadly, too many people who are giving state-of-the-village speeches have watched the SotU over the years and have learned the wrong lessons about what they can and should be.  And as David’s article tells us, 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 state of the Pittsburgh region and southwestern Pennsylvania.  (Click here to read the 2009 State of the Pittsburgh Region Address.)

What I’ve found is that the important elements 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. Tell 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 successfully negotiated new labor contracts?  Has it expanded to new markets or even simply managed to outperform competitors in the face of industrywide decline?  Has your community attracted a new factory, hosted a major convention or provided social services to residents hit particularly hard by the recession?  Even in difficult times, there are always stories of success 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?  Did poor investments jeopardize the viability of your pension plan?  Did your region’s largest employer close its local operations?  Is homelessness 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 reallocated resources from struggling lines of business to those that are doing well?  Have you arranged for local universities to retrain displaced workers in an effort to 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.  David’s article illustrates that what’s lacking in too many recent state-of-the-village speeches is vision.  The speakers he quotes 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.

So, before I join David in asking where the great state-of-the-village speeches will be found in the months and years ahead, I want to know: Where are the great leaders?

Have some thoughts on what makes a great state-of-the-village speech?  How about the link between leadershp and great rhetoric?  Leave a comment below, or e-mail me.  And don’t forget to follow Bannon Communications on Twitter!

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