Thursday, August 11, 2011

The speaker in a crisis

What would you say if you were the speaker and a crisis occurred?

I'm not talking about the lights going out or the slides not loading, but a real crisis: A death, a war, a natural disaster. The crisis might be happening right next to you or far away, but many speakers find themselves having to pull something to say together in a critical moment that they know is affecting (or is about to affect) their audiences, something so powerful that it must be acknowledged and addressed.

Speakers in a crisis can benefit from keeping their remarks short and simple, no matter what they'd originally prepared. But three more qualities of speeches in crisis are even more important, to my mind. The most memorable and effective crisis speeches:
  • Acknowledge and give voice to the feelings of the audience, rather than avoid them;
  • Offer universal and unifying themes to which the group can relate; and
  • Share a positive vision of what can come out of the crisis, even while acknowledging the difficulty in doing so.
Here are a pair of speeches that did just that, both related to unexpected deaths.

Betty Ford, giving an impromptu prayer for Rabbi Maurice Sage
In 1976, First Lady Betty Ford was at an event where a prominent rabbi, Jewish National Fund president Maurice Sage, was to present her with a Bible when he collapsed next to her. Sage died shortly afterward, despite attempts to revive him. But while his fate was still a question, Ford took the microphone to lead the group in an impromptu and unifying prayer for his life. You can see people attempting to help in the background as she stands at the microphone in the photo at left, shown here courtesy of the Gerald R. Ford Museum and Library.

One of the most striking speeches in a crisis I've ever heard was Robert F. Kennedy's impromptu remarks at a 1968 Indianapolis rally, in which he informed the mostly black audience of the assassination of Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.--a shock to the audience and the nation. The calm and quiet tone not only suited the occasion, but may have prevented the type of rioting that occurred in many other cities as a reaction to the news. He drew on deeply personal beliefs, a favorite poem and an appeal to the listeners to come together not in anger, but against the anger. This was a campaign stop for Kennedy, who was running for president in 1968. Within two months, he too was assassinated after a speech in California--something that makes these remarks all the more poignant in retrospect. (You can find a transcript of his remarks at the link.)

Please share your thoughts about what else is needed during an impromptu speech during a crisis, and your suggestions for others to add to this list.

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