Great motivational speeches set forth realistic vision

How to temper lofty goals with reasonable expectations

President Obama campaigned on a promise of hope. And while it was an effective message, some believe Obama’s goals aren’t realistic. Case in point: In President Obama’s Feb. 24 address to Congress, speaking of his recovery plan, he stated:

“It will launch a new effort to conquer a disease that has touched the life of nearly every American by seeking a cure for cancer in our time.”

MyRagan.com readers were asked if that claim was science fiction, as many had dubbed President George W. Bush’s goal to put on man on Mars. Or was it inspirational, like JFK’s famous speech to a joint session of Congress on May 25, 1961:

“I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the earth.”

Putting aside the invective and the ad hominem attacks, Ragan.com readers were divided. Some saw this as a “rash claim” and a “baseless promise” that crossed a dangerous line — playing with the emotions of cancer sufferers and their families. Some criticized “inspirational rhetoric” and warned it would wear thin. On the other hand, there were those who applauded the president’s “vision for the country” and saw the goal of conquering the disease as realistic.

Quite clearly, the lofty rhetoric Kennedy (and Ted Sorensen) employed in 1961 inspired the audience. It was a call to action that marked the start of a nine-year program. Policy was formulated. Technicians implemented the details. Gantt charts planned out specific milestones to design rockets, train astronauts and develop the space capsule. What began with rhetoric ended in success.

It remains to be seen if we’ll ever set foot on Mars or conquer cancer.

The question for speechwriters is, how far should lofty goals be tempered with realistic expectations? When does a call to action lose credibility? What guidelines can be employed to inoculate inspirational speeches against a skeptical response by an audience?

Guidelines to follow

Effective speeches often motivate by highlighting difficulties, tempering vision with realism.

On December 8, 1941, with the U.S.S. Arizona still smoking, Franklin Roosevelt addressed the nation:

“We are now in this war. We are in it – all the way. It will not only be a long war, it will be a hard war … We don’t like it – we didn’t want to get in it – but we are in it and we’re going to fight it with everything we’ve got.”

Motivational speeches are effective when they draw attention to a perceived weakness in the speaker, turning doubts to advantage in the audience’s mind.

In 1588, Queen Elizabeth I, visiting the troops at Tilbury on the eve of the battle with the Spanish Armada, said:“I know I have but the body of a weak and feeble woman; but I have the heart of a king.”

Acknowledging difficult aspects of the current situation can motivate listeners. Dr. Martin Luther King’s most famous speech mirrored a series of obstacles with their opposite:

“And so even though we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream….I have a dream that one day even the state of Mississippi, a state sweltering with the heat of injustice, sweltering with the heat of oppression, will be transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice … I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted, and every hill and mountain shall be made low, the rough places will be made plain, and the crooked places will be made straight …”

So is Obama guilty of being too like Pollyanna in his speeches? Of being too wrapped up in “inspirational rhetoric”? I would argue not. The opening minutes of his Inauguration speech show a classic tempering of expectations:

“Today I say to you that the challenges we face are real, they are serious and they are many. They will not be met easily or in a short span of time. But know this America: They will be met.”

To be effective, speakers must understand the limits of empty inspirational rhetoric. Avoid groundless optimism. Temper expectations. Know audience expectations and your own ability to bridge the gap between what is and what might be. While reaching for the moon, keep your feet firmly on the ground.

(This article was originally published on ragan.com, April 2, 2009)

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1 Comment so far
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Ian,

I agree with you — to be inspirational, speakers need to be realistic.

I think they also need to acknowledge the price to be paid or the sacrifice to be made. Both Roosevelet and Churchill were clear about what victory would require of their nations, and it wasn’t sugar coated.

Chris



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