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Book Review: "The Four Speeches Every Leader Has to Know"

Review of The Four Speeches Every Leader Has to Know by Bård Norheim and Joar Haga (Palgrave Pivot, 2019, 125 pages)

“Dying is easy; comedy is hard” – these were supposedly the last words of the English actor Edmund Kean. The Four Speeches Every Leader Has to Know starts from the opposite premise. If things are going well for an organization, it’s easy for a leader to make a speech celebrating good news. More difficult is standing up in front of an audience and speaking after a tragedy. Even more challenging is having to persuade people to undergo sacrifice and suffering to help accomplish a shared goal.

So maybe Kean had it backwards – comedy is easy, while dying is hard.

The Four Speeches begins with the premise that something important is missing from the never-ending geyser of motivational books published by what we might call the global “leadership industry.” As the authors note:

In many books on leadership we are taught that it is possible to make life into a success story. Given the right training, the right fine tuning of your followers’ motivation, you can move yourself and your company from good to great, away from suffering, or at least to a place where suffering is minimized…[But] [s]uffering is an inevitable part of life…[and] a fundamental part of the human condition. For humans, change is inevitable, and change implies pain. As human beings we are forced to adjust to shifting times and conditions. We have to relate to the suffering of change.

Next comes another hard truth for leaders to consider:

Success is not given. It is only a possible and temporary outcome. Leadership is directed to the future, and the future is never secured, but fundamentally open-ended. There is always the possibility of the improbable and terrifying…Success belongs to the perilous future. The task of leadership is to envision a preferred future. As a leader you seek to align people with that vision. More than that, you continue to speak persuasively of this vision through all the problems, the insecurity and suffering you know you will face.

This means that leaders must therefore know how to credibly and compassionately “address suffering,” whether because “a tragedy has struck” or “a worker has passed away,” or “when a company has to cut budgets and let people go, or even when the leader has to fire an employee.” If a leader responds to suffering with “either silence or inept hesitation or exaggeration, [this] will leave the audience with a paralyzing uncertainty. Such a leader lacks credibility.”

Those four occasions a leader must address suffering in some way are: when you first take the reins as boss and must outline your vision (including overcoming some obstacles that will, necessarily, involve organizational suffering); when you must communicate a tough decision (the “execution” speech); when you must comfort the organization after some tragedy; and when you take your final bow as leader (the “farewell” speech).

The bulk of the book explores how speakers can borrow from the “wardrobe” available to executive communicators, via the writings of the great historical exponents of formal rhetoric – and clothe themselves appropriately, so to speak, for those occasions when they must address suffering. (This “wardrobe” idea is effective because it underlines how one is free to adapt from that store of rhetorical wisdom what makes sense. It’s a wardrobe, not a “rhetorical straightjacket.”)

But make sure your choice of rhetorical garment isn’t the equivalent of wearing a red tuxedo to a funeral, the authors warn:

The use of metaphors can be effective and motivate your followers to action, but the metaphors have to fit the occasion. A CEO presenting a slight change in the company mailing system should probably not use all-encompassing metaphors, and definitely not say that ‘I promise you nothing but blood, toil, sweat and tears.’…When there’s less at stake, try to find a fitting, and less dramatic metaphor.

With all the talk of suffering, one might assume this book is just one long grim warning about the perils lurking around the podium, ready to snare an unsuspecting speaker (as if in a horror movie).

The Four Speeches is much more than that. Bård Norheim and Joar Haga have produced a thoughtful and lively volume focused on a difficult aspect of executive communications with which every speechwriter wrestles. Every scribe should read it.

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