And like the Roman politician Cicero, I think there is an intrinsic connection between the qualities required for oratory and those for leadership. In fact, anyone who seeks to become a vir bonus dicendi peritus – a good man, speaking well – is also walking the path towards becoming a real leader.
When a politician ascends to the leadership of their political party, his or her first automatic and mandatory act is to give a speech. Persuasive communication is at the core of leadership, and they know it.
But business people do not have the automatic positive association with words that politicians have. And they are often not comfortable assuming the necessary political role. They are rarely disciplined enough to say the same thing over and over again until it finally sinks in; they feel a great need not to take an argument public; they are fearful of offending anyone in order to win; and they desperately want to be loved and liked. In short, they have a limited strategic sense of the speech and its uses.
But we who write know that the best – or perhaps I should say the most rigorous - way to test any idea is to write it down in prose.
Sometimes the process of writing can throw up all kinds of contradictions and conflicts that the CEO might have fondly thought – or been told - had been resolved, but in fact had merely been papered over. Quite often what seems very brilliant as it swirls and dazzles around the mind – or the PowerPoint pack - turns to mud and sludge as it lands on the page. Crafting a speech can therefore force a resolution of competing visions within the business.
And while there will always be risk, delivering a speech is often a far safer communications channel than any other option. When a CEO gives a speech he or she is actually taking back power. They are in charge of the time, the space and the moment. They have an unobstructed opportunity to tell their story, the way they want to, without interruption. To anticipate and forestall wilful misinterpretations. To refute the doubters and the sceptics. To provide a coherent and consistent form of words for staff to use in their own communications. To create a unified understanding for all their stakeholders of their vision and strategy. To reveal their reasoning, convey something of their personal style, and extrapolate their vision.
A speech is a particularly helpful form because it is not just flat prose. In the drafting of a speech, we have no option but to be mindful of that immediate audience, instantly judging, right before our very eyes. Giving a speech is literally thinking aloud. So it forces not only a process of logical thinking, but consideration of whether that thinking can be successfully transmitted to others.
And there’s something else. The speech form is the most authoritative form of communication, for it has the stamp of the leader. Just walking up to that podium and looking around the room is a statement about confidence, ownership and responsibility in the role.
A speech is a higher status document than a press release or a media interview. It is a portrait of a leader’s mind, and will become part of his or her legacy.