The Return of Speechmaking

Amidst the Eastern European conflict, heads of state are stealing the geopolitical stage with speeches—not tweets. Can the medium of the moment help CEOs?

Times of war are times of speeches. Leaders who have gained eternal fame for their wartime bons mots include Pericles, Queen Elizabeth I, George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, Napoleon Bonaparte, Joseph Stalin, and John F. Kennedy. Now, with the conflict in Eastern Europe building, we have heard some powerful speeches from present-day government leaders, including Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky. “He’s giving a master class in crisis-communications management,” says Richard Marshall, global managing director of the Corporate Affairs Center of Expertise at Korn Ferry. “CEOs can learn from this.”

Ten years ago, communicating with the general public via speeches seemed to be out of vogue. “There was less of an expectation for leaders to engage with the public at all,” says Peter McDermott, senior client partner for global corporate affairs and investor relations at Korn Ferry. Executives generally avoided taking positions on news and political events, leaving most speeches devoid of the necessary authenticity and emotion. The tipping point has been gradual, but included an impassioned “tolerance is for cowards” speech decrying racial tensions by Randall Stephenson, then-CEO of AT&T, that went viral in 2016. Eight years on, with the rise of the Black Lives Matter and Me Too movements, an executive is now expected to take stances aligned with their company’s values. And what’s the perfect medium to express those values? A heartfelt speech.

Speeches can present significant risk: a teleprompter can break, or the presentation can seem staged, or the exercise can devolve into platitudes. A speech also provides ample time for digging a hole from which recovery is not possible. One memorable example: best-selling author Malcolm Gladwell once gave a speech criticizing the predilection of writers for delving into the childhoods of their subjects. This seemed reasonable to him. But he finished his address to discover that his entire audience disagreed with his premise.

One way to avoid triggering an audience mutiny, says McDermott, is to make sure that a sounding board of people with diverse backgrounds has reviewed the speech, including people who will push back and make suggestions based on their own experiences. “You want a sounding board that does not look like you or think like you,” he says. “That’s where leaders take missteps.”

Experts say President Zelensky is currently modeling the basic tenets of successful speechmaking. “There’s a real authenticity and compassion to his message, and he’s delivering it exceptionally well,” says Marshall. “He’s there with his people on the front lines, and there’s not a lot of stagecraft around it.” Part of Zelensky’s effectiveness, he says, is his ability to keep the speech in the present moment of his audience and their concerns. “If you miss the moment, it’s hard,” he says.

Psychologically speaking, speeches are a time to prioritize connection, says organizational psychologist Debra Hermann, a senior client partner at Korn Ferry. A speechmaker’s arsenal includes time, tone, and pitch. “It gives many more tools to convey the point,” she says. And humans are wired to be receptive to speeches. A human voice raises listeners’ oxytocin levels and lowers their cortisol levels, she says, which increases well-being and reduces stress. “That’s probably magnified now that we’re all starved for human interaction.”

McDermott suggests combining speeches with other media, such as shorter social-media videos. The medium, he says, should not only be comfortable for the executive; it should also be optimal for delivering his message. “CEOs should never limit themselves.”