Writing a speech in a crisis – Bush and Obama

Barack Obama

When a crisis occurs, there is often pressure on leaders to set an example, respond in an appropriate manner and inspire others into positive action. For those who lead large numbers of people, the quickest way to do this is by addressing their team through a speech or presentation.

This post gives guidance on three things to consider that will allow you to quickly put together a speech to respond to a crisis. We will look at structure as well as how to inspire and persuade your audience. We will do this through the study of two famous ‘crisis’ speeches from George Bush and Barrack Obama.

Before reading any further, I recommend that you view the two embedded videos below. The first is George Bush’s address to the nation on the day of the 9/11 terrorist attacks. The second is a speech from Barack Obama in the day that followed the ‘Batman shootings’ in 2012.

What we can learn about formatting an inspirational speech in a crisis:

In both speeches there is a clear format that emerges, designed to engage and inform the listener.
You will notice that both speeches open with a review of the current state of affairs – what has happened. This is informational.

They then proceed to describe to the audience how they, the listener, are feeling. How they should feel, and how they will feel. This is emotional.

What follows is then a clear course of action. This tells the audience what will follow, including what the leader will do, as well as what the listener should do. This is informational.

Both speeches then finish with a clear ‘call to arms’, which is usually emotional. Bush finishes with: “We go forward to defend freedom and all that is right and just in our world”. A wonderful mission statement for the people of America and one that has now lasted nearly a decade.

These case studies demonstrate a strong format for a speech in a crisis. The balance of emotional and informational aspects both informs and persuades the audience. This is a good structure for you to start writing your own speech from, as it provides the bare bones for you to flesh out:

- Review current situation
- Describe how audience is feeling and how they should feel
- Inform the audience about the next steps to resolve this issue
- Finish with a clear line that inspires your audience; a mission statement for their actions.

What we can learn about inspiring others in a crisis:

What makes the two speeches above inspiring? What is it that helps the audience to relate to them, and motivates the audience to move on to bigger and better things?

It’s the language that is used throughout these speeches that really adds emotion to them, draws the audience together, and makes them feel as though they are part of a positive, united community and movement.

Both speakers speak of America as a family. Obama even states ‘we the American family’. Both speakers describe ‘our pain’ and ‘our sorrow’ and the joint feeling of these being ‘darkest days’. This language is much more emotive and personal. Compare ‘darkest days’ to ‘a bad day’ – which inspires more emotion?

The key learning here is that when inspiring others in a crisis, it’s not always what you say, it’s how you say it. Review the language in your crisis speech – does it make the matter personal, or is it very impersonal? If you’re struggling to get the right tone, crack the thesaurus open!

What we can learn about persuading others in a crisis:

The basis of a persuasive speech is communicating a shared understanding or feeling. Both Obama and Bush do this in their speeches by relating to the audience just how similar the victims of the atrocities are to them.

Both Bush and Obama bore down to the fact that the victims are humans; secretaries, military personnel, parents and lovers. Obama even goes as far as to describe that as a parent, he too is directly like the victims and families of the shooting. This all combines to demonstrate to the audience that there is a shared understanding and feeling between the speaker and all of the listeners. We are all alike.

Once this shared understanding has been formed, it is much easier to deliver a proposed action going forward. The audience are open to pushing a solution forward because they now feel that they are part of a group that has a shared vision, shared responsibility and shared direction. It makes the task seem less daunting and much easier to achieve.

The learning here is to review your own crisis speech and make the issue or problem as relevant to your audience as possible. This can be done by relating the issue or problem, as well as the action, to examples that your audience can relate to and understand.

Conclusions:

Just by reviewing two speeches that have been written by leaders to respond to a crisis we can already see a clear format emerging, as well as key items that should be reviewed to increase the effectiveness of the speech: language and the use of relevant examples.

I am sure that if we were to review more speeches of this nature other key points to consider would emerge. However, the key to many crisis speeches is the speed at which they are written and then delivered to the audience. As such, the findings above are a great way to start and structure the writing process to rapidly produce a crisis speech.

As always, I welcome thoughts and feedback on the topic.

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Rich Watts is the UK Business Speaker of the Year and a past JCI National Public Speaking champion. He setup and now runs Rich Public Speaking providing presentation skills and public speaking training.

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