“What exactly do you mean, ‘the only reason to give a speech is to change the world?’” That comment greeted me recently from a reader of this blog who was interested in our upcoming conference and wanted to know what she was going to get out of it. My first reaction was to laugh, because generally speaking lofty statements of ambition are not meant to be taken literally – and most adults know that.

But we live in an era of authenticity and rampant BS-detecting, and anyone who makes public claims needs to be ready to defend them. So, on second thought, I delved deeper into the comment, and what lies behind it, because it is important to be real and also because I began my first book with the comment.

The phrase did not, apparently, come from President Kennedy, though many people have suggested that to me with certainty. Of course, it’s difficult to prove a negative, but I’ve scanned the Kennedy canon and found no evidence that he ever wrote, said, or thought the phrase.

It was told to me by a speechwriter and reporter who got his start reporting first hand the D-Day landing in Normandy that heralded the beginning of the end of WWII. I met him when we briefly both worked as speechwriters for the same company, he at the end of his career, me at the beginning of mine. He took me to lunch on a regular basis and regaled me with stories about WWII, getting the facts right, and changing the world. When I got the assignment at the company to write my first speech, one for an executive who was heading to Australia and a public speech about the company’s intentions on that continent, my reporter-mentor said to me, “Don’t screw it up, Nick. You know the only reason to give a speech is to change the world. Make it worth it.”

I met the challenge with a highly ordinary speech about the rosy relations between the US and Australia and the bright prospects for the company and Australian business. No controversies.

And no changing the world. My mentor was kind, and understanding, but I felt like I had let him down, and the speechwriters’ guild, somehow. And so the saying stuck with me, because my first outing had failed.

So how do you change the world with a speech? My contention (and my answer to the inquiry from my skeptical reader) is that a speech has one job and one job only: to change the minds of the people in front of you, your audience. And so your task is to take that audience on a decision-making journey, from Point A (pre-speech) to Point B (post-speech), where Point B is a different state of mind. If you do that successfully, you have changed the world, because you’ve changed the audience’s minds in front of you, and that means the world has changed.

How do you accomplish this feat? By persuading the audience that the point of view you’re proposing is worthy of note, worthy of exchanging for their previous point of view on the subject. By telling the audience something that it doesn’t know already. By inspiring them to think differently, dream differently, and ultimately act differently. Speeches that simply dump information on an unsuspecting audience are a waste of time if their primary purpose is to demonstrate the expertise of the speaking. But a speech that shares the mysteries of a body of knowledge in a way that opens an audience’s minds to new thinking – that’s a speech that changes the world.

That’s the only reason to give a speech. And yes, I do mean something specific by the phrase. I mean that, to change the world, your job as a speaker is to tell your listeners something new, change their thinking on a subject you care about, and inspire them to new action. Isn’t that reason enough to give a speech?

2 Comments

  1. Hi Nick – thanks for another great post. Here’s how I’ve always explained this concept (which I first heard from you):

    Whether speaking to 5 people, 500 or 5000, why would anyone bother to take the time and effort necessary to prepare and deliver a speech unless the goal wasn’t to at least challenge the audience to think and feel differently about the subject matter? And more importantly, why would anyone even bother listening?

    However, if you change the way someone thinks and feels about a given topic, you can affect their actions. And if you affect their actions, you can effect change. And after all, isn’t that the only way the world ever changes? When an individual or group of people do things differently than they did before? Whether it’s at work, at home or in the community, a great speech can provide the impetus for action and be the catalyst for change.

    1. Thanks, Martin — great commentary. You’ve got it right — if you’re going to go to the trouble to give a speech, change the world by changing the people in front of you.

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