Friday, October 2, 2015

Famous Speech Friday: Carly Fiorina's post-9/11 speech

In late 2001, nearly every public speaker in America had to at least consider whether to alter a speech planned before, but delivered after, the September 11 attack on the World Trade Center in the U.S. That attack changed every aspect of context. Words, jokes, and previously acceptable phrases all came under closer scrutiny. Speakers found they had another job to do, by inspiring, reflecting, grieving, or ennobling our understanding of the events of the day. In many cases, audiences were gathering for the first time in a group since the attacks, an opportunity to bring them together to make sense of things.

The then-CEO of Hewlett-Packard Carly Fiorina also faced this speaker's challenge. For a speech titled "Technology, Business and Our Way of Life: What's Next," delivered in Minneapolis just over two weeks after the attacks, she spends part of the opening talking about, and apparently laying aside, her intended topics. Much of the speech reads to me as one she might have indeed planned to give, but a careful read shows that its eventual theme is woven with care throughout.

This speech is getting better known, 14 years later, for its ending, and because Fiorina is now running for the presidency of the United States. It has already been dredged up in the 2015 presidential campaign as a potential problem for Fiorina. That's because the ending includes a clever piece of storytelling:
There was once a civilization that was the greatest in the world. 
It was able to create a continental super-state that stretched from ocean to ocean, and from northern climes to tropics and deserts. Within its dominion lived hundreds of millions of people, of different creeds and ethnic origins. 
One of its languages became the universal language of much of the world, the bridge between the peoples of a hundred lands. Its armies were made up of people of many nationalities, and its military protection allowed a degree of peace and prosperity that had never been known. The reach of this civilization’s commerce extended from Latin America to China, and everywhere in between. 
She goes on to describe this civilization, then reveals that it is none other than the Islamic world between 800 and 1600. Critics of this ending suggest that Americans can't tolerate any praise of the Islamic world, an idea I don't think holds up under scrutiny. But much will be made of it, nonetheless: Just this week, a poll in North Carolina found that 72 percent of Republican respondent feel a Muslim can't be president of the United States.

I see this less as a skeleton in Fiorina's closet than an almost-tempest in a teapot. Many American speakers, in the days following the attacks, found ways to speak with respect rather than hate about Islamic people. One such example is the joint talk from Phyllis Rodriguez and Aicha el-Wafi featured in The Eloquent Woman Index, whose sons were involved on that day in very different ways. What can you learn from this speech?
  • When you represent a global entity, speak globally: Fiorina's speech, taken as a whole, reflects her position as CEO of a global company. After the World Trade Center attacks, she could have struck an "America First" tone, but chose to broaden her reach to encompass many parts of the globe.
  • Aim for higher ground: "We’re living in an era that's defined by the power of ideas, the power of connections to knowledge, to information. Smart people reside everywhere in the world - all kinds of people and smart people brimming with ideas that have yet to be heard." If you read this speech closely, you'll find her message consistent throughout, not just a surprise at the end.
  • Put people first: Your audience, whatever they are in their day jobs or at that particular event, are people. Address all of them. For a corporate CEO's speech, this one is loaded with humanity, and a good example for others, with lines like "Concern for the security of our employees who are of Middle Eastern descent or who practice the Muslim religion here in the US and abroad." 
I'll be curious to see whether this speech really becomes the skeleton in the closet it's predicted to be. It feels elevated and more noble than a faux pas, and Fiorina has expressed views on the current campaign trail that are consistent with this talk. There's no video of this speech, but you can see the full text here on HP's website.

(Creative Commons licensed photo of Fiorina speaking in 2015 by Mark Nozell)

I've got two small-group workshops coming up on Creating a TED-quality talk in Washington, DC, in January. Choose the January 14 workshop or the January 28 workshop. All you need to do is bring your one big idea for a talk in the style of TED. You'll learn how to plan, write, time, practice, and deliver it in a group limited to 5 people per workshop. Join us! You get the best discount if you register by October 30, 2015.

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