Can a speaker inspire an audience with a negative message? The short answer is ‘no’, but of course you’re thinking about politicians – just to take a particularly blatant example – who appear to inspire their followers with all sorts of negative messages, so you’re thinking, ‘certainly a speaker can!’ But you would be wrong.
Why? The answer is important, because it tells us something about how to construct a good speech. If you give us a problem, we want to solve it. That’s the way our minds work. Problem-solution. Our minds easily follow the logic of that structure, which is why it makes such a good one for many speeches.
Now, there are two kinds of problems audiences can respond to – new problems, or problems they already know they have. If we know we have a problem already, we want to hear that you (as a speaker-leader) understand it. If you do that much, we’ll grant you our credibility – we’ll decide you know what you’re talking about. If you show us how to solve the problem, we’ll trust you. Think of the doctor that successfully diagnoses a condition – that earns our credibility. But when that same doctor leads us to health, we trust him or her. That’s the deeper connection.
If it’s a new problem – one we don’t fully understand, or haven’t articulated well, then we grant huge respect to the speaker who can do that for us. A real expert, we think.
But if the speaker can’t offer a solution, we eventually turn off. And that’s why you can’t inspire with a (solely) negative message. All those politicians offer solutions with their trenchant analysis of current woes. You may not like the solutions. In that case, you won’t trust the candidate, even if you grant, grudgingly, credibility because you at least partially buy into the analysis of the problem. But most of those politicians find a group for whom their solutions make sense. Hence the Tea Party, Occupy Wall Street, and so on. For some, it’s tax breaks. For others, it’s revenue enhancements.
The same holds true for business speakers, and speakers in other walks of life. A clear, compelling analysis of a problem will get you credibility. But unless you have an equally compelling solution, you won’t inspire trust, and you won’t galvanize your followers.