Why do we invite speakers to address audiences for important occasions? Wouldn’t it be more efficient to communicate ideas in print?
If you were going to learn about an important initiative of your firm, would you prefer to receive a memo or to hear the news from a person? Why?
When you prepare a presentation outlining a corporate citizenship effort, how much time do you spend thinking about your delivery? Your voice? Your nonverbal communication? Your language? Your organization? Or do you think mostly about your message – the ideas, the “content”?
If two different people deliver the “same message” to an audience, will the audience receive the “same message?” These questions invite us to think about when and why we prefer spoken over written communication and hence, what is special about the role we take as speakers.
Corporate citizenship practitioners know that one of their most important jobs is continually demonstrating how their efforts help achieve business goals. Those in the field understand the business and social value that environmental, social, and governance initiatives bring to an organization, but in an age of streamlining and fast-tracking business objectives, establishing the significance of these often long-term efforts requires constant communication—but how is this best achieved?
It is clear that we reserve many of our most important conversations, both personally and as a society, for spoken discourse. Although lawyers submit mounds of briefs, court decisions depend on oral arguments; legislation follows hours of testimony (and persuasive private conversations); boards of directors meet in person for face-to-face conversation; in our personal lives, we often feel certain messages must be spoken, not written.
Why do we do this? Why, when there is so much possibility for misunderstanding with spoken discourse, would we not select a more efficient and controllable method? Of course there are many responses, but surely part of the answer is that speech is what we humans do; it is completely natural, often effortless, and satisfying. In the process of speaking, we share ourselves, we form connections and relationship with others, and we construct meaning. In a field that demands the personal commitment and involvement of our leaders and employees with issues outside of the traditional lanes of business, these elements are particularly important.
Think about reading a transcript versus attending a speech. The latter is infinitely richer. There is sound, there is color, there is movement. There is nuance, emphasis, and personality. There is satisfaction as we listen to a speaker describe something with which we are familiar and even cite an example we know. There is argument inside our heads when we are sure the speaker is wrong. There’s the possibility of feedback to or questioning of the speaker. There are simply more available channels of communication in spoken discourse than in written communication—channels that informed professionals can put to use in working to achieve their corporate citizenship goals.
Similarly, the role of the speaker is considerably more complicated just presenting the text or being the “voice” of a message. [There’s a reason we don’t just hand out textbooks in our classrooms; we hire teachers. The textbooks may have all of the requisite information but we rely on teachers to create meaning for students.]
Speakers make dozens of choices (deliberately or not), not only about what they will say but also about how they will say it. Thoughts have to be represented by symbols (words, nonverbal symbols), put in some order, expressed through the voice and body of a person, and so forth, and choices in each of these areas are meaningful. Listeners can’t read our minds (or even our speaker notes) so their access to our ideas comes from interpreting all of the symbols we speakers provide. Of course they listen to the words, to what we say,but they also make meaning from how we say it. When our language is formal and distant, the audience notices. If that’s what we intended, terrific; but if we meant to create a personal connection, the language is working against us. If I’m trying to motivate the audience to take an action, I need an organizational structure that creates momentum. If I say I really care about a project but my voice communicates boredom, I’m not likely to be believed.
As corporate citizenship practitioners, you are often called upon to take the role of speaker in executive meetings, presentations, staff discussions and so forth. If there’s a rhetorical skill you’d like to strengthen or deepen, here’s an idea you might like to try:
- Select a specific goal. Try to avoid overly broad statements like “I want a more effective delivery” in favor of more specific, measurable goals like “I want to stop trailing off at the end of my sentences” or “I want to take more time as I speak and use more emphasis.”
- Listen, listen, listen: to your colleagues, to the radio, to any presentation to hear and see what you want to emulate or avoid.
- Enlist a collaborator. Most of us can’t work on something and monitor it at the same time. Ask someone you trust to help. You don’t have to be “on” all the time; instead, you can select comparatively low-risk venues for practice.
- Have fun!!