As I catch up from spending most of last week at the Detroit Regional Chamber’s Mackinac Policy Conference, I’m still absorbing some of what I saw and heard as 1,400 business, government, community and media leaders gathered on an island with no cars, five hours from Detroit. This was my tenth Mackinac Conference and, as agendas go, it was one of the best.
As strong as the agenda was, one of the barriers to success was beyond the control of organizers – the variable ability and execution of the speakers. Once again, the oldest form of public communication proved challenging for those selected to engage in it.
The opening speakers – construction company CEO John Rakolta and former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich – were both strong. Rakolta outdid John McCain circa 2000 with “straight talk” laced with credibility, candor and passion. Gingrich used his hour to walk across the stage in engaging style, rather than stand behind the podium, asking the audience questions and hammering his points, naturally and conversationally. Even those who disagreed with him couldn’t help paying close attention.
Another strong speaker was Michigan Governor Jennifer Granholm, a former prosecutor who put on a defender’s hat to stand up for her eight years in office. She basically told the audience she had a tough job at a tough time and did the best she could, using a combination of humor, attention-grabbling visuals and old fashioned political spin. Despite a mostly business audience and abysmal approval ratings, she received a standing ovation from a crowd that momentarily cast aside her years of dubious leadership to applaud her extraordinary ability to give a speech.
Another keynote speaker, later in the Conference, U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius, fell far and disappointingly short of expectations. First, she did not stick to her subject, which was supposed to be explaining how federal Health Care Reform affects Michigan. Instead, with no regard for the targeted audience sitting right in front of her, she read a boring and predictable stump speech, filled with statistics, that argued the case for the legislation. Anyone who paid attention to the national debate had heard virtually all of the arguments before.
Other speakers made other mistakes, including panelists in the many Conference breakout sessions. Some chose the brutal “verbal resume” route, where the audience gets to hear their career experience, but no “takeaway” insight on the subject at hand. Others used their time for de facto commercials about their companies, without advancing the dialogue on the issue that the audience came to hear explored. You can watch many session clips here and see for yourself.
As we have said on this blog before, even with new communications platforms, the old ones are still important. The next time you are asked to give a speech – be strategic, plan ahead, know your audience and make sure fundamentals are strong to make the most of the opportunity.