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  • Writer's pictureErin Graham


It’s a new year, which means it’s speech-giving time for many a mayor, superintendent and executive director. In the best of circumstances this process includes the communications professionals in their circle of trust.

I picture everyone tackling this task just as we do here in the Graham household - cuddled up on the couch with children and dogs and snacks, some kind of fine cinema like Waterworld or Family Guy playing in the background. We process best when tossing ideas across the room at random, waiting for the moment those concepts begin to connect into some form of “A-ha!” that means: We’re on to something. We’ve got a story here.

And I’m not gonna lie - it’s a relief when we finally arrive at that point. Every. Time.

Over the course of my career I’ve had the opportunity to witness many a “State of the City” and “State of the Schools” address, providing what I consider to be a critical opportunity to connect and engage with the people you serve. Here are a few tips to consider as you’re writing away on your own couch this year:

It’s not about you. Consider your audience, and customize your message to their cares.

Are you speaking to business leaders? Residents? Families of young children? Elected officials? A bit of all of these? Ensure your speech is delivered through their lens of relevancy. A parent’s concerns might revolve around safety, educational supports, and recreational opportunities. Business leaders are going to have different concerns. Address them personally.

It’s not about you. In fact, if you can get away with not using the “I” pronoun at all, then all the better. When sharing the progress of your organization, take this opportunity to acknowledge that your accomplishments are because of the good people in your midst. You likely have a team of folks surrounding you who have been with the organization much longer than you have, and may even live in the community you serve. Recognize that. Recognize their commitment. Shine that spotlight upon them because it’s their fault when things are going well. And when things get challenging, thank them for all they do to push on through.

No really, it’s not about you. Please stay away from lengthy analogies that involve your favorite sports team, especially if they aren’t even from the area. Nothing disengages an audience more quickly than when you draw a line in the sand between the “us” and “them” in the room. Even if you’re intending to be playful, it rarely comes across this way.

OK it’s a little about you. While it’s true your speech should not be about you, your audience does want to get a sense of who you are as a person and leader. If you’re a folksy fella who leans toward self-deprecating humor, this is not the time get all formal on people. When your speech is in your language, with your natural speech rhythms, your audience will feel the authenticity and listen in. In fact, some of the best speeches are those with no script at all. Listening to someone read their speech is fine and all, but it sounds a note flat. Can you work off talking points instead? If there are certain topics you know you want to cover, and can expand upon them naturally while speaking directly with your audience (something you likely have done in meetings or at after-hour networking events anyway), this puts magic in the moment.

  • BE AWARE: There is an exception to this rule, however. If, as a result of the nature of your work you tend to speak using industry-specific jargon, acronyms, or terminology, have someone you trust work with you to translate your speech with you. You don’t want to come off as hoity-toity, or worse, have everyone in your audience asking one another what you just said. Remember, the whole goal of the day is to connect with people. Don’t mess it up with language that clouds the message.

Resist the urge to revisit successful speeches. If you had success with a speech in the past, it likely no longer rings true. A speech is like a time capsule — reflecting who and where we are as a culture during that moment. As time passes, the collective mindset of the world also moves forward. There are nuances that result in how we speak and relate to one another that cannot be ignored. Take the time to write something for the now that we all share. It’s as much about relevancy as it is about showing respect for your audience.

Honor those who aren’t in your presence too. People are busy. Don’t mistake their physical absence as an indication that they don’t care. The potential audience for your message goes far beyond those who happened to be able to attend and/or afford to be with during this specific day, time, and place. Make every effort to make your presentation available for those who could not come. While it’s wonderful to have a professional videographer capture the moment and embed captions, titles, and other features that make it easy to follow along - there are other ways to accomplish the goal of accessibility. Invite the media to provide coverage for their print or televised audiences. Provide a transcript of your speech on your website, and make it available through your e-newsletter and social media. Live stream on Facebook. And don’t forget to make sure people know where and when they can expect to find this content both before and after your event.

The big “so what.” Your audience has gone out of their way to be with you today, putting their work or family responsibilities aside to spend time with you. What are they walking away with? Important information to then share with their networks? If that’s the case, have you provided them with materials such as flyers or an easy to remember website link to help facilitate this process? Or is it something more tangible, like signing up for a specific committee? Make your call to action clear, easy to execute, and specific. It’s helpful and satisfying all around.

Partnerships, partnerships, partnerships. You are not alone. And it’s a powerful thing for us as human beings to be personally asked for our help. Explore ways to get others involved. Maybe you can feature community partners at display tables before and after your event. Maybe students can showcase their talents with an art exhibit, musical ambiance or even food for the day. Can the Chamber sponsor your event? Can the Urban League arrange the perfect location? Their involvement will enrich the experience exponentially.

While there are other considerations, such as ideal length, location, etc. — if you keep your focus on respectfully engaging your audience, the rest falls into place every time. So go grab yourself a cup of coffee, find a comfy place to get your writing on, and get in the zone. May your joy and big ‘ole heart show through in all you do.

Need help with your speech or presentation?
Give us a call at 440-292-6004 or email us at and we’ll take care of you.


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