Executive Careers Blog

How to Stand Out When You Stand Up


“None of you will remember a single word I say,” the Governor said. That was the gist of how he began his address at my son’s college graduation.

It was a memorable line. On the other hand, it raised a disturbing question: Why listen?

Of course, technically, the Governor was correct. If you’re about to graduate college, and you’ve taken 30 courses, you already know a great deal about forgetting.

I certainly don’t remember the commencement speech at my own college graduation. Did I even go to my graduation? I don’t remember. I do, vaguely, remember going to college.

Let’s edit the Governor’s opening. He could have said: “You won’t remember 99% of what I’m about to tell you. But there is ONE THING you will remember - we’ll get to that in a minute.”

If you say that, you create suspense. Then, all you need is the ONE THING.

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Unfortunately, a lot of other things work their way into a speech. The Governor, for example, opened by thanking people.

There was a list:

“Faculty, distinguished guests, undistinguished guests, the guests we really didn’t want to invite but we sort of had to, the people we never even invited – hey, who’s that funny looking guy over there? Sir, what are you doing here?”

Well, that’s not exactly what he said. Too bad. Thanking people is a standard start – that’s what makes it dull. Better: Jump right into your talk with an anecdote or a question, then later give the credits.

He ended with a call to action, along the lines of, “Serve and sacrifice.” Nothing wrong with that, except it’s easily forgotten.

Winston Churchill may have given the most memorable commencement speech. It was 1941, Churchill was reported to have said, “Never ever, ever, ever, ever, give up. Never give up. Never give up. Never give up.”

That was it. Then he sat down.

Churchill’s audience was probably disappointed. It was so short. But they probably never forgot what he said.

Churchill knew the one thing.

Tip: What’s your message? Figure that out - then deliver it.

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Consultant, author, speaker, and founder of express potential® (www.expresspotential.com),  Paul Hellman has worked with CEOs, executives, and managers at leading companies for over 25 years to improve performance and productivity at work. His latest book is “Naked at Work: How to Stay Sane When Your Job Drives You Crazy,” and his columns have appeared in the Wall Street Journal, New York Times, Washington Post and other leading papers.

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