The measure of success for any public speaking event, whether you’re presenting a pitch, conducting training, running a meeting, or being interviewed is always the same. Did you accomplish your goals? If so, congratulations.
So what are the objectives of a postgame interview? It really isn’t about conducting “serious” journalism. The reporters asking questions aren’t going to dig up important facts during the interview or discover that the Rockets actually won. These events are more like those press tours that actors do where they go around promoting a movie on every possible talk show. They’re designed to give fans more access to the players, showcase their personalities, build their brands and that of the team. Ultimately, they exist to sell tickets, shirts, and cable subscriptions.
Did Riley Curry help with that? Absolutely. She was all over the morning news programs and somehow managed to make her enormously likable dad seem even more charming. It certainly won’t hurt him when it comes to winning endorsements from sponsors, and I wouldn’t be surprised if Riley is offered a few of her own. She already has her own custom version of her dad’s signature shoes.
Now, that doesn’t mean I want athletes to regularly start dragging their kids to interviews any more than I think it’s a good idea for anyone other than Maya Rudolph to sing impression-studded versions of the national anthem at commencement ceremonies. The charm of each event comes from being so unusual and unexpected.
Do you remember anything the speakers said at your high school graduation? Or even who the speakers were?
I don’t. As a matter of fact, I can’t tell you anything about any of the many graduation ceremonies I’ve been to over the years except for the fact that I was overheated and anxious about getting sunburned at a lot of them.
Chances are you’d remember if the speaker told you and all of your classmates “None of you is special. You are not special. None of you is exceptional,” as Wellesley High School English teacher David McCullough did in his speech. Of course his point wasn’t to dishearten these poor kids, but to remind them of the virtues of selflessness. And they’re much more likely to remember his advice than they would have been if he had just given the standard uplifting talk meant to inspire young people.
Let’s face it, your presentations and meetings are probably much, much, less memorable than the average commencement speech. One of the best ways to change this and make an impact on your audience is to do something unexpected–like tell them they aren’t as special as they think they are. Next time you have an important presentation to give, think about what you can do to surprise them or challenge their assumptions. It’s a riskier strategy than having another boring, forgettable meeting, but the payoff can be huge.
Aaron Sorkin was recently caught “borrowing” his 2012 Syracuse University commencement speech from a very well-regarded source–himself. It turns out that much of what he says comes directly from a convocation he gave in 1997 at the very same school. In their coverage Slate calls this recycling, but it seems to me that the more apt metaphor would be the rerun, especially since the speech also borrows from Sorkin’s TV shows, including The West Wing and Sports Night.
I’m torn about how I feel about this. Anyone who speaks to an audience reuses their best material, but it seems to me that an audience at an event like a commencement speech expects an original, inspirational performance, not something that has been re-purposed from elsewhere. It’s a little like making the same remarks at two different funerals. They might be nice words, but they lose their impact when you know they’ve been used elsewhere.
Of course all of this would have been much easier in the era before we all carried around video cameras in our phones and everything was available for study on YouTube. Then all of the Syracuse grads could have enjoyed the speech without having known they were watching a rerun.
I’m not usually a big fan of inspirational speeches. They tend to make me roll my eyes a lot. But there’s something that I love about commencement addresses. A really great commencement speech employs a combination of gravity, personal storytelling and humor that I just find really engrossing. Watch enough of these and you’ll start to get a pretty good sense for how speakers adjust the formula of these three ingredients to make their talks work for an audience.
Here’s a collection of commencement speeches put together by The Atlantic. I’m not sure it’s fair to say that the overarching theme of these speakers is that they managed to succeed without trying. It seems to me that their point is more like Conan O’Brien’s from last year, that life is full of surprises. But it was nice of The Atlantic to put them all together in one place for us.
Here’s another great commencement speech. I’m starting to think that only comedians should be allowed to do these things, but there probably aren’t enough of them who could really pull it off. Structurally, this one is a lot like Conan O’Brien’s Dartmouth speech— he starts with lots of jokes and eventually reaches what he calls the “meaningful part.” Colbert even builds on Conan’s talk when he reprises the “dreams change” theme from the Dartmouth commencement. “You have been told to follow your dreams,” he says. “But what if it’s a stupid dream?” Apparently he’d even been at the Dartmouth speech the week before because, while Colbert went to Northwestern, the character he plays on TV attended Dartmouth.
It’s nice to see Colbert being himself for a change rather than playing the character from his TV show. But I guess that he didn’t have much choice but to leave his regular character at home if he wanted to deliver a heartfelt message like “serve what you love.” As he points out himself, the “Stephen Colbert” from the Colbert Report isn’t interested in serving anyone or anything– probably not an appropriate message for most commencement audiences.
It’s graduation season so there are lots of commencement speeches being delivered by famous and powerful people. This is one of my favorites, mostly because it’s just so entertaining. Anyone who’s sat through a graduation ceremony knows how important a little entertainment can be, especially when you’re getting soaked in the rain or baking in the sun under those black robes.
Sure, Conan also has a “real” message for the Dartmouth grads about the lessons he’s learned from seeing his dream of hosting “The Tonight Show” come true and then end in a very public debacle. “In 2000,” he says, “I told graduates not to be afraid to fail. Well now I’m here to tell you that, though you should not fear failure, you should do your very best to avoid it.” But the majority of his talk is mostly just funny, with a bit of hard-earned wisdom tucked into the last third. That seems like the perfect formula to me; keep them laughing, then leave them with something to think about.
Other things I love about this talk include the shots of the Bushes laughing and the fact that college president “Stinky Pete” can barely contain himself. Conan’s reference to “The Third Earl of UC Santa Cruz.” And that lectern (it’s not a podium, Conan) that he describes as “something a bear would use at an AA meeting.”
Overall, this is a great example of a presenter who knows what he’s doing, who has carefully prepared his talk, knows how to use a teleprompter effectively and makes the effort deliver a performance. Most of us will never be this polished, this funny or smart. But it give us something to aspire to.