Lesson from the Hall of Fame: Don’t read speeches!

I grew up with the dynamic duo of Joe Montana and Jerry Rice leading our San Francisco 49ers to championships and Superbowl victories. Joe Montana was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2000. I was thrilled when Jerry finally made the 2010 class, and was inducted earlier this month.

What I love most about Jerry Rice is his work ethic – it’s unparalleled. We even use him as THE epitome of continuous improvement in our programs. Whether you’re a wide receiver, financial advisor, sales engineer or operations manager, you’ve got to stay on top of your game. That means working hard to keep beating your personal best.

So here he is, the inspirational, talented, greatest-wide-receiver-of-all-time delivering the speech of his life:

Ouch. It’s halting. Stiff. Choppy. He misreads it with broken syntax and wrong words. And worst of all, he’s completely disconnected…an empty yellow jacket. (If you're a glutton for punishment, you can see the whole thing here.)

Regretfully, the comparison that popped immediately into my mind is a scene from last year’s big comedy, The Hangover. No disrespect Jerry – it was just this bad.


What happened?

The content looks great – you can read the full speech here. It’s well written with emotion and great, specific examples. But therein lies the rub. When it’s not delivered with emotion and completely lacks any connection with the listeners (he barely glanced at Joe Montana when he mentioned him), the communication experience tanks.

The bad news:

We ALL do it. Content takes over and we think, “If I just say the words, people will get it.” But you have to speak to the hearts and minds of people to get their attention, buy-in, motivation to act. And there’s nothing like reading a scripted speech that will kill that experience.

The good news:

Jerry CAN do it. In fact, he did. Here’s a fantastic interview following the announcement of his Hall of Fame selection (before the big induction day). No notes, nothing written down – just him being himself – genuine, affable, confident and showing raw emotion. If he only delivered the speech this way. (The entire thing is great, but watch from 3:45’ and on.)

How to avoid it:

Don’t script! We teach people to use post-it notes with trigger words (3-5 words ONLY). Most of the time, you KNOW your content well, the key is to remain organized and focused in your delivery. You just need a few notes for reference.

Practice! This is a huge high-stakes presentation. Word on the streets is that Emmit Smith – who was superb in his induction speech – spent weeks practicing. Not unlike Steve Jobs prepping for a MacWorld keynote or major product launch. Please note: we wouldn’t normally advocate practicing for weeks on end (after all, you just don’t have the luxury of time to do it for a routine staff meeting), but this IS a pretty big deal, and worth the time and focus.

4 thoughts on “Lesson from the Hall of Fame: Don’t read speeches!
  1. Though I’m sure your method has worked for many people, telling people not to script a speech is bad advice. You’ve used Jerry Rice as your example for what happens when you script a speech, but he’s a poor example.
    In fact, all the speeches we remember and refer to as excellent examples were written speeches. I have a dream was a written speech. King also read it when he delivered it. Do you think he would have been better off giving that speech off the cuff?
    Kennedy’s inauguration speech was written and read. Should he have used post-it notes instead?
    I rarely read speeches, but there are occasions that call for it. Regardless, I always write my speeches. It’s just like a musician. They don’t always play with sheet music, but when they write their songs, the songs are written down or recorded. You can read a speech AND connect with the audience. History has proven that over and over again.
    I do agree with you that every speech does not require hours of practice, but that is the key to successfully reading a speech and connecting with the audience – – lots of practice.

  2. I agree with John that a written speech can work well if the speaker has reviewed the text and rehearsed his delivery. A large font and plenty of white space will make the text easier to read, but rehearsal is the key to success. Pace, emphasis, posture, eye contact, and hand gestures all contribute to an effective speech, and the only way to develop these is through preparation. I would also submit that the one thing worse than clumsy prepared speech is a rambling, incoherent speech given off the cuff.

  3. John & Bill-
    Thank you for your comments. I appreciate the perspectives and different views.
    It continues to amaze me how many executives we coach that are still stuck in writing out everything they say, including up to the CEO level.
    We use any and all examples of various people speaking to prove a point. This week happened to be that hall of fame episode and it makes a good point. There is a big difference between the experience of Jerry Rice on that stage, then the experience Emmit Smith put forward. Think about a sales person/product manager/C-level executive coming across in those different ways. If it’s choppy, scripted the way Jerry Rice was, they will fall short. He appeared like he was just given the script as he walked up. Part of the goal is to set anyone up for success in any opportunity. Scripting is not the ideal set up: it takes too long to put together, causes more stress around word for word, is tougher to deliver in a genuine way, etc… Don’t get me wrong, we do have clients that script, that use teleprompter, and can be successful. It does take practice, lots of practice which is not realistic for every opportunity. There is a time and place for everything. Practice is great, and needed – however the real world is a world of being ready at any given moment. For that reason it’s needed to set up processes so you can speak from the heart, have a listener focused message that causes action. Off the cuff that Bill describes might be 80% of our everyday communications, so you want to insure it’s great. That’s the real reason for this blog post.
    Habits are tough to break – but if you’re willing to try – you get results! Thanks again for your contributions here.

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