Friday, September 19, 2014

Famous Speech Friday: Indra Nooyi's "middle finger" speech

Commencement speakers get a thumbs-up or thumbs-down depending on how well they can make a hidebound ceremony seem fresh and memorable. Indra Nooyi got a definite thumbs-down from some quarters when she offered up a 2005 commencement speech that included a starring role for, ahem, the middle finger.

Nooyi, president and CFO of PepsiCo at the time, spoke at the Columbia University Business School graduation on the topic of global business. She was an inspired choice: born in India, in charge of PepsiCo's international strategy for nearly a decade, and consistently ranked among Forbes' most powerful women in business. And she employed an inspired analogy in her talk, using the hand and its fingers to talk about perceptions of the United States in the world marketplace.

Each major continent was represented by a finger in this analogy, which emphasized how the "hand" (the world) did its best when all its fingers worked together. Nooyi dubbed the U.S. as the middle finger of the hand--an anchor of strength and purpose, but apt to send the wrong signal if extended on its own. The thrust of the speech was a cautionary tale to young Americans ready to launch their careers on the global stage. But parts of the blogosphere in particular were incensed by the speech, seeing it as an attack on American values. Nooyi later released a statement saying she "had come to realize that my words and examples about America unintentionally depicted our country negatively."

So was it a speech full of wise advice or insulting asides? You can read the full text here, and check out the notes below on what we think worked in this speech:
  • If you use an analogy, be sure that it has its roots in real life. America-as-middle-finger could have been little more than a gimmick, but Nooyi knows just how important this perception is on the global stage. Her talk is built around real examples, like the boorish businessmen in a Beijing bar, that support her analogy and give it credibility and urgency.
  • It doesn't hurt to repeat yourself. In this case, the analogy gave Nooyi the perfect tag line to repeat during the speech. There are several places where she encourages the graduates to "extend the hand, not the finger." Repetition is one of the classic skills of rhetoric that you might want to explore for your next speech.
  • Talk about yourself if it's relevant. Who better to speak about perception in global business than Nooyi? As PepsiCo CFO and an immigrant, she had both the professional and personal experience to know how misperceptions can hurt:
Graduates, it pains me greatly that this view of America persists. Although I'm a daughter of India, I'm an American businesswoman. My family and I are citizens of this great country. This land we call home is a most loving and ever-giving nation--a Promised Land that we love dearly in return. And it represents a true force that, if used for good, can steady the hand--along with global economies and cultures. Yet to see us frequently stub our fingers on the international business and political stage is deeply troubling."
Today, Nooyi serves as the chairperson and CEO of PepsiCo, and yes, she's given several other commencement speeches since 2005. At BlogHer 2011, she emphasized that women leaders should "overinvest in written and oral communication" with an eye to how speaking can motivate others. She admits to flunking the first communications course she had at Yale, and in this video talks about how she's learned to speak slower over the years.

(Freelance writer Becky Ham contributed this Famous Speech Friday post)

(Creative Commons licensed photo from the World Economic Forum)

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