Making the message make sense

Something very cool happened last weekend.

I finally earned a college degree — a little later than planned, but it happened. I’m incredibly proud of that accomplishment.

The days before graduation and the day itself were filled with speeches and talking – a whole lot of communication goin’ on.

I wasn’t part of the traditional group of graduates, so I was able to shift my focus and observe what was happening. (That’s also the journalist in me emerging and taking notes!)

I noticed a few interesting things about the ways that people communicated — what worked, what didn’t, and why.

AUTHENTICITY RULES: Several students spoke at the Saturday morning baccalaureate service, and while everyone was thoughtful and prepared to speak, I found the response from students fascinasting. The speakers that elicited the strongest response weren’t necessarily the smoothest speakers. But they were the ones who were willing to be vulnerable and real in front of a crowd, and they got a lot of respect from the audience.

I was stunned by one student. I’d been in a class with him and he always seemed nervous when he spoke. But that day, he stood in front of 500 other people and delivered an amazing set of remarks. It was all authentic, all him, and all heart.

SELECTING THE RIGHT MESSAGE: On the other hand….well, how do I say this diplomatically? Our commencement speaker, for all his accomplishments and good intentions, missed the mark.

I suppose I could be thankful that he didn’t launch into a flood of Commencement Clichés, but….I’m not sure WHAT it was that he said to us. I think it would be best described as a speech for a Kiwanis Club meeting, or maybe something you’d deliver at an industry conference or a job interview.

After a promising beginning with a few jokes, the speaker essentially recapped the minutiae of his career for what seemed like forever — in front of 500 graduates roasting in the sun, all waiting for That Guy To Stop Speaking. (Heck, I knew a bit about his line of business and *I* was praying for a strong wind to carry the stage away.)

That can’t in any way be called a success.

Anyone on the speaker circuit probably has a core speech they give to everyone, with alterations here and there based on the audience. But it’s important to remember that whether it’s a commencement address, an annual shareholders meeting or a town hall debate, the message has to fit the event. Too often, we try to plug a one-size-fits-all set of remarks into an event that needs to have its own story told.

SIMPLICITY IS BEAUTY:  Students often take the same approach to a speech that they do to writing a term paper: more is more. But the simplest communication can be the most effective.

The graduating class always collects money to start a scholarship fund, and this year’s seniors had been hounded via e-mail to make a contribution. Those efforts were falling short.

A class leader who had the mic at an event asked everyone who had received scholarship money to stand. It was ninety percent of the attendees.

THAT made an impact, and the senior class ended up collecting well beyond its goal.

Sometimes, the simplest message is the strongest one, and the one that can make the biggest impact.