How Fred Rodgers Saved Public Television with a Six Minute Speech

“On May 1, 1969, Fred Rogers, host of the (then) recently nationally syndicated children’s television series, Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood (named Misterogers’ Neighborhood at the time), testified before the Senate Committee on Commerce Subcommittee on Communications to defend $20 million in federal funding proposed for the newly formed non-profit Corporation for Public Broadcasting, which was at risk of being reduced to $10 million. The subcommittee chairman, Senator John Pastore (D-RI), unfamiliar with Fred Rogers, is initially abrasive toward him. Over the course of Rogers’ 6 minutes of testimony, Pastore’s demeanor gradually transitions to one of awe and admiration as Rogers speaks.  Eventually, Pastore is won over, and the CPB is awarded its full funding.” – Daniel Deibler

The question is, how did he do it?  I think there are six things that Mr. Rodgers does that makes this one of the best speeches I’ve ever seen:

  1. He speaks from a clear, logical set of points, centered around a simple argument – that public television can be used to enhance a child’s emotional life, not hinder it.
  2. He centers his speech around a story; how he created Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood – and that story has a very clear beginning, middle, and an end.
  3. He makes fantastic contrasts – he compares what $6000 dollars could do for television; pay for one hour of quality children’s programming or two minutes of violent cartoons.
  4. He knows his audience – the senator he is speaking to was an advocate for educational television, and Fred Rodgers makes mention of it in his speech.
  5. He makes piercing eye contact – effective nonverbal communication enhances your impression with your audience, and it all starts with the eyes.
  6. He just really knows his shit – he can quote statistics about arcane budgeting tasks, but also snippets of songs he worked on months ago.

Ultimately what makes this speech work is compassion.  Fred Rodgers believed passionately in what he spoke about, so he had the energy and focus to do the hours of work necessary to put together this short speech.  And that passion shows through in his every gesture, his every word.  So, today,  think about what you care about before you begin speaking, and remember, if you keep in mind that every speech is an opportunity, you too can change the world.

Should You Promote Your Product in Your Ted Talk?

The short answer is yes, but how you do it is very, very important. If you make your product the primary focus of your speech, or Q and A, you will bore the audience, or worse, annoy them. Nobody comes to a major conference like TED to hear a product pitch. People come to hear new ideas. You must be able to craft a dynamic, purposeful, wildly creative premise to your speech first, and then strategically weave mentions of your product into the speech as you develop your material.

Take Elon Musk’s brilliant TED Q and A. The premise of his talk is really the nature of innovation, but he manages to use his three current companies, Tesla, SpaceX, and Solar City, as examples. It never really appears that he is promoting his companies, because his first loyalty is to his premise (the nature of innovation). As long as you prioritize your premise and keep it innovative, inclusive, and not sales oriented, then, ironically perhaps, it is safe to do a little selling.

Donald Trump’s State of the Union Address from a Public Speaking Perspective

Most of the pundits have weighed in on the political ramifications of Donald Trump’s State of the Union address last night, but what of his public speaking craft?  To be blunt, I think he does some things well, but many things poorly.  Let’s break it down.

To start with, he is clearly reading off of two teleprompters.  This is not a problem if you are able to coin phrases in a conversational manner, and you are very familiar with your material.  Mr. Trump does neither well here.  He seems unfamiliar with the language he is using, and he makes very little eye contact with the television audience or his constituents.  It’s very important to be familiar with your material, and to lift your eyes off of the page, in order to make a personal connection to your audience.

As a result of this lack of familiarity with his material, Mr. Trump’s delivery is uncharacteristically tentative.  When he is speaking off-the-cuff, he has some vocal variety, and punch to his language.  But his voice fades when he is working with an outline, and he becomes quite monotone.

What he does well here has nothing to do with his delivery, but with his speechcraft.  He utilizes personal stories well, highlighting numerous stories about heroic everyday Americans.  But non-verbal communication trumps material (no pun intended), and the president’s poor delivery undermines his message.

Five Reasons Oprah’s Golden Globe Speech Rocked

When we are called upon to make a speech, we can go through the motions, and pull together something that is adequate, or we can think carefully about the tremendous opportunity we have for creating change, and craft something that calls people to ACTION.  Thankfully, Oprah chose the latter last night with her rousing Golden Globe speech.  Here are five reasons the speech ROCKED:

  1. She opens with a powerful, personal story – Her story about being a little girl watching Sidney Poitier win the Cecil B Demille award was deeply affecting.  The reason it worked was that she shared personal details about her life, and brought us into the sensory experience of what it was like to be there; sitting on the cold linoleum floor watching the television, seeing her mom come home from a hard day of work cleaning other people’s houses, etc. It’s important to share your story, but it’s equally important to draw the audience into the experience of your story.
  2. She had a single, powerful theme – And she states it clearly at around the 4 minute mark.   “Speaking your truth is the most powerful tool we have”.  It’s important to believe in your theme deeply, and to know your audience well enough, and the occasion well enough, to have confidence that your theme will resonate with them.  
  3. Most of the speech is made of stories that dovetail with her theme – Her story about how Recy Taylor endured a horrible sexual assault, and how it is time for such behavior to end, dovetails beautifully with her theme.
  4. She finishes her speech with a powerful call to action – With a minute remaining in this relatively short speech, Oprah assures all the little girls watching her that a new day is arriving, returning thematically to the beginning of the speech, the image of her watching Sidney Poitier on tv as a little girl.  The conclusion mirrors the introduction; we have come full circle.
  5. She uses language powerfully – Notice the way that Oprah engages language.  She hits her verbs, uses her full vocal range, and projects her voice.

Don’t waste speaking opportunities, folks.  Each one, even the most mundane, can encourage change in people and organizations around you.  Oprah’s speech is just one example of the power of the spoken word.  Speak your truth!

Three Reasons Doug Jones’s Acceptance Speech Was Amazing

It was an electric moment for Alabama last night, and for the country.  Doug Jones defeated Roy Moore in an election for a seat in the U.S. Senate, an election that had broad implications for the state of Alabama and for the country at large.

I’d like to focus on his victory speech.  It would have been easy for Senator Jones to surf the adrenaline of the moment, and disregard good public speaking technique, but he didn’t do that.  He spoke with intention, structure, and purpose.  Here are three things that rock about this speech:

  1. It’s selfless – unlike Donald Trump, Doug Jones wasn’t quick to take credit for his victory. He rightly laid the victory at the feet of the people of Alabama.  Nothing unifies an audience more than selflessness.
  2. It uses southern myth brilliantly –  After giving the victory over to the people of Alabama, Jones credits them for taking the right road at “the crossroads”.  “The Crossroads” is a common motif in the music of the deep south, evoking memories of a hodgepodge of southern people and events: Robert Johnson, the Civil Rights Movement, the Alabama Bus Boycott, Segregation, etc, etc.  But it’s bluesman Robert Johnson who owns the most common iteration of this myth; the story of a man who sells his soul to the devil in order to play the guitar.  Every man, woman and child from Alabama, and many people from other parts of the country will immediately understand the allusion, and likely feel thrilled to be walking in Johnson’s footsteps.
  3. It uses southern myth brilliantly part two – I don’t think you can be a Democrat giving a major political speech in Alabama without quoting Martin Luther King Jr, but the question is, which quote?  I’ll admit when Doug Jones trotted out the “the moral arc of the universe” quote from King’s 1964 speech at Wesleyan University, I was a little weary.  It is a quote that is often overused.  But it really is the best quote for this moment.  This race had everything to do with morality and doing what is right.  The Doug Jones moment, for so many reasons, is personified by Martin Luther King Jr, a man who fought against the establishment in the name of dignity, grace and human rights.

Again, it’s very easy to get caught up in the moment during these big emotional speeches and lose track of what you are saying, It’s very important to remember the importance of structure, allegory, and symbolism when you speak.  I hope Doug Jones will remember this when he runs for president in 2020.