Recently, I had a coaching session with a divisional president of a Fortune 500 company. The first thing I did was ask her how she would like to be perceived by an audience. I told her to select ten characteristics that would be an appropriate ending to the sentence, “I’d like an audience to see me as ...”
Here’s what she wrote:
That was the order. Then I asked her to pick her top four. Here’s how she listed them:
I asked, “Why those four?” She said, “I want people to see me as being transparently open with them—no secrets. That’s honest. And I want them to believe me and believe in me, to see me as a knowledgeable expert, and to respect me. And I’d like to be seen as sincere and inspiring.”
“Very good,” I said. “Now the tough decision. Which of these would you select if you could only choose one?”
“Oh, to be inspiring,” she said. “If you are able to do that, the audience loves you. That’s the ultimate dream of any speaker! But very few ever accomplish it.” I asked her when she might see herself giving an inspirational talk. “Often when I give a state-of-the-business update to my department, I feel the need to be inspirational,” she said. “To show them that their world will get better if we just reach a little more, and try a little harder. That’s an example. Another is whenever I address the sales force. The sales people always need a lift. The sales manager beats on them all the time. He doesn’t inspire; he manages, he persuades, he bribes them with incentives. When I come in, I’m management. What I try to do is create a bigger picture for them, a loftier vision. I want to lift their sights, to inspire them. That’s what they need.”
It is true that giving a talk to inspire is challenging. But it is a skill that can be learned. The word “inspire” comes from the Latin inspirae, which means “to breathe life into.” It enables you, the speaker, to breathe life into your talk and into your audience. That is why the talk to inspire is so riveting. It is why you, the speaker, come away looking so strong.
Let’s examine a few great inspirational talks from history, recognizing that the world’s stage belonged to those great people at those moments. You and I don’t have that stage, but we do have our own settings, whatever they may be. We can learn from the masters, draw some principles from them, and show how those same principles, with some adaptation, can work for us.
Consider the American Patrick Henry in March of 1775. The tensions between the colonists and the British had escalated. War, even revolution, was openly discussed. Much preparation was underway, but Virginia, the largest colony, had not committed itself. A meeting of its delegates was held in Richmond. Patrick Henry proffered a number of resolutions. His purpose was to inspire these delegates to take the big step. They should no longer see themselves as independent farmers, husbands, tradesmen, private citizens, but as fellow countrymen, seeking freedom. Patrick Henry proposed to put the colony of Virginia “into a posture of defense ... embodying, arming, and disciplining such a number of men as may be sufficient for that purpose.” It was a commitment to revolution.
Here are the last two paragraphs of his historic speech:
The battle, sir, is not to the strong alone; it is to the vigilant, the active, the brave. Besides, sir, we have no election. If we were base enough to desire it, it is now too late to retire from the contest. There is no retreat but in submission and slavery! Our chains are forged! Their clanking may be heard on the plains of Boston! The war is inevitable—and let it come! I repeat it, sir, let it come!
It is in vain, sir, to extenuate the matter. Gentlemen may cry, “Peace! Peace!”—but there is no peace. The war is actually begun! The next gale that sweeps from the north will bring to our ears the clash of resounding arms! Our brethren are already in the field! Why stand we here idle! What is it that gentlemen wish? What should they have? Is life so dear, or peace so sweet, as to be purchased at the price of chains and slavery? Forbid it, Almighty God! I know not what course others may take; but as for me, give me liberty, or give me death!
He spoke without a script and his speech was effective. At its conclusion a vote was taken, and the resolutions passed by a narrow margin. Virginia had thereby joined in the American Revolution.
Note how Patrick Henry lifted his audience beyond where they could go by themselves. The appeal was to a higher goal for his listeners—freedom versus slavery. He showed he was committed to the cause he was espousing. He rallied them; he inspired them.
Here is a Winston Churchill speech from May 13, 1940. Sir Winston had just been appointed British Prime Minister the Friday before. In that short time, he had formed a war cabinet made up of five members that he described as “representing, with the Labour, opposition, and Liberals, the unity of the nation.” England was the prime target of Hitler’s war machine, and the very survival of the country was in doubt. The speech was relatively short. At its end, Sir Winston said, “I take up my task in buoyancy and hope ... Come then, let us go forward together with our united strength.”
But just before that, he said these immortal words:
I say to the House as I said to ministers who have joined this government, I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears and sweat. We have before us an ordeal of the most grievous kind. We have before us many, many months of struggle and suffering.
You ask, what is our policy? I say it is to wage war by land, sea, and air. War with all our might and with all the strength God has given us, and to wage war against a monstrous tyranny never surpassed in the dark and lamentable catalogue of human crime. That is our policy.
You ask, what is our aim? I can answer in one word. It is victory. Victory at all costs—Victory in spite of all terrors—Victory, however long and hard the road may be, for without victory there is no survival.
Note that Churchill took his listeners on a mental and emotional journey created by his words and feelings: “ordeal of the most grievous kind,” “months of struggle and suffering,” “war against a monstrous tyranny,” “victory in spite of all terrors.” There was no way his audience could remain unmoved. With his inspirational speech he galvanized their thoughts and their emotions, so that they went “forward together with [their] united strength.”
On January 20, 1961, John Fitzgerald Kennedy delivered his inaugural address. He was the youngest U.S. president ever and had won the presidency by the narrowest margin ever—110,000 popular votes. The day was cold, twenty-two degrees. He wore no overcoat and no hat.
Carl Sandburg, the poet, later said of that address “... around nearly every sentence ... could be written a thesis, so packed it is with implications.”
Here are excerpts from that talk:
We observe today not a victory of party but a celebration of freedom, symbolizing an end as well as a beginning, signifying renewal as well as change ...
Let the word go forth from this time and place, to friend and foe alike, that the torch has been passed to a new generation of Americans, born in this century, tempered by war, disciplined by a hard and bitter peace, proud of our ancient heritage, and unwilling to witness or permit the slow undoing of these human rights to which this nation has always been committed, and to which we are committed today at home and around the world.
Let every nation know, whether it wishes us well or ill, that we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe, to assure the survival and the success of liberty. This much we pledge—and more ...
And so, my fellow Americans, ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country. My fellow citizens of the world, ask not what America will do for you, but what together we can do for the freedom of man.
At the conclusion of that talk our nation came together behind John F. Kennedy. He had created a vision of the future that we all aspired to. His vision, but now ours, too. He asked for our participation to make that vision a reality. He lifted us out of ourselves and took us with him, through his talk, to a better world. That is what a great talk to inspire can do.
Each of these examples is among the finest inspirational talks of all time. Let’s identify the common elements and then see how we might use them.
The grandeur of the vision. (Example: “freedom of citizens versus slavery,” Patrick Henry)
The total commitment of the speaker. (Example: “I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears and sweat,” Winston Churchill)
How the speaker reaches for our participation. (Example: “Ask not what your country can do for you ... ,” John F. Kennedy)
An appeal to nobler motives. (Example: “Victory, however long and hard the road may be, because without victory there is no survival,” Winston Churchill)
How the audience is uplifted. (Example: “ ... ask what together we can do for the freedom of man,” John F. Kennedy)
Creating Your Own Inspiring Message
But let’s step back. How do we, you and I, put together a talk to inspire? We are not the leaders of nations or the fomenters of revolution. We usually don’t have a cataclysmic world event as a backdrop. Instead, we have a variety of business situations where we might want to inspire, such as a sales meeting, motivating a team on a new project, a departmental meeting, a midyear update, an annual meeting, a meeting requesting an additional budget allocation, and so on. There are many opportunities, and the ability to inspire a group is never out of style.
Where do we find the material for such a talk? We reach into our own life experience and find stories that were “moving” to us as we lived through them, and tell them in a way that moves our audience. There has to be a message or lesson that flows from the story, and it has to be pertinent to that audience at that time. That’s what we will explore now.
We’ll establish principles, analyze two examples, and see how it all fits together.
Begin with a moving story.
Re-create and relive the story.
Show and share your feelings.
End with a lesson learned.
1. Begin with a moving story. This can be an incident out of your life that had a profound emotional impact on you, or a profound incident from someone else’s life that you know so well and feel so deeply that you can tell it as though you were there.
2. Create and relive the story. We’ve talked about the impact of a story in other chapters. Here, the story is more important because the stakes are so much higher. Re-create, relive the story with words, gestures and energy so that the audience sees what you saw, hears what you heard, feels what you felt, lives through the experience the way you did.
3. Show your feelings. Share your feelings. Give totally of yourself. Don’t hold back. Patrick Henry, Winston Churchill, and John Kennedy each showed their most heartfelt emotions and convictions in the speeches they gave.
4. End with the message or the lesson learned. If your goal is to inspire people to greater efforts, be sure your final words are uplifting. Ensure that the audience will be moved to action.