Telling it like it is – 10 Tips for giving speeches in tough economic times

Tough economic headlinesTimes are tough. As the world economy lurches from crisis to crisis many leaders – from the President of the United States and captains of industry to school principals and Scoutmasters – will have to give speeches which motivate the audience to overcome obstacles and achieve tough goals in challenging times. Such speeches are never easy, but done well they make a huge difference. These ten tips help you tell it like it is.

  1. Tell it like it is. Authenticity is a rare commodity, especially when people speak to an audience. Avoid abstractions and keep it simple and concrete. Honest words win people over.
  2. Find common ground. Meet the audience at the place they are, then take them to the place you want them to be. Say ‘we’ more often than ‘I’ and create a bond with your audience.
  3. Deal with uncertainty and doubt. Admit to shared doubts and concerns. Identify challenges. Discuss the potential for failure if we don’t rise to the challenge.
  4. Be realistic. Don’t sugar-coat the situation. But quickly bridge to a vision of a better alternative. Ground the vision in reality. Share your vision with energy and enthusiasm.
  5. Put things in perspective. Both positive and negative stories can motivate. Tell how things are often much worse elsewhere. Show how others faced greater odds and came through. Set stretch goals and paint a picture of the rewards of achieving them.
  6. Speak from the heart. The best way to engage an audience is to tap into their emotions. Make your case with passion and purpose. Avoid the passive voice and use of qualifiers.
  7. Match your actions to the words of the speech. It is crucial that you are seen to ‘walk the walk’. Don’t fly in on a corporate jet to ask for a subsidy, and don’t award yourself a bonus when laying people off.
  8. Be aware of non-verbal communication. People will judge you on how you look as much as what you say. Use open gestures. Consider every aspect of your dress and manner.
  9. Keep your sense of humor. No matter how serious the situation, self-depreciating humor can break the ice. The audience who smiles with you is more sympathetic to your argument. Make sure that you connect humor to the point you are making. Keep it short and sweet, not long and drawn-out.
  10. Conclude with a call to action. At the end of your pitch, ask for something concrete. Outline specific steps that must be taken.

Speakers who follow these tips will meet the challenge of presenting in challenging and dynamic times in ways the audience will feel is honorable and worthy of respect. Great challenges offer great opportunities. More than in easy times, speeches delivered in tough times make a difference.

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Great piece. I think the challenge is how to do #1 and #3 at the same time — tell it like it is (which can be scary) and deal with uncertainty and doubt. It makes me wonder how a leader can offer realistic hope these days.

Leadership consultant and coach John Baldoni recently wrote about a presentation President Obama gave to the CIA. Baldoni notes that what’s happened at “The Company? is similar to what’s happened at many companies. He argues that “what the President said and did at Langley is worthy of study for leaders seeking insight to communicating in tough times.?

His advice:

Come to them. When Director Leon Panetta introduced the President, he noted the employees’ enthusiastic response, “This is a very loud welcome [laughter] to a group that is supposed to be silent warriors.” Employees love it when top officials visit their location. It sends a powerful signal when the leader comes to your workplace. It demonstrates that what you do matters.

Affirm their worth. “You are on the front lines against unconventional challenges,” said the President as he itemized the work the CIA does to “support our troops,” “disrupt terrorist’s plots,” and help “destroy terrorists’ networks.” Therefore, the President said, “You should be proud of what you do.” Employees never tire of hearing their good work praised by people at the top, and need to hear that the work they do is consequential.

Stand with them. Knowing that many in the CIA are feeling under siege for the release of information on the torture memos, the President accepted responsibility for their release. But he made it clear that he would “protect your identities and your security” adding that he “will be as vigorous as protecting you as you are vigorous in protecting the American people.” Employees need to know that executives have their back because all too often when things get hot it is employees who suffer the heat first.

Do not pull punches. The President was explicit in expecting CIA to uphold the values of the U.S. Constitution. By contrast, “Al Queda’s not constrained by a constitution.” He noted that it may seem as if the U.S. is “operating with one hand behind our back.” No matter that CIA has “the harder job.” The President emphasized, “we will defeat our enemies because we’re on the better side of history.” Leaders need to have explicit standards, values and behaviors. Such things reinforce the culture and leaders need to endorse them.

Tough jobs in tough times demand solidarity from top to bottom. Leaders need to iterate what they feel and why they feel it.

Excellent article!
I appreciate your advice to “Tell it like it is” and “Keep your sense of humor. No matter how serious the situation, self-depreciating humor can break the ice. The audience who smiles with you is more sympathetic to your argument.”

I agree.
I find that when I demonstrate a sense of humor about my foibles — and times of learning —
my audience can relate to me *person to person.*

Instead of aiming to be a person “standing on a box up high”, I demonstrate that I am another person on the same path — and
in my areas of expertise — a number of steps ahead.

Again, Ian — well done!
many happy moments,

Tom Marcoux
America’s Communication Coach
Author of Be Heard and Be Trusted, 3rd edition – free chapter at

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