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Sometimes The Best Speech is an Unmemorable One

Jonathan Chavkin  Follow

Speeches can be intimidating, whether it’s the formal keynote address at a forum or a casual office toast congratulating a colleague on a promotion. And if you’re not accustomed to having the floor, there’s often an added, self-applied pressure to make your mark.

What follows builds on some words that I’ve shared previously—both briefly online and loudly in the office. There’s really no offseason for speeches, but we are in the midst of a crowded window. For example, my colleagues are beginning to emerge from earnings season calls, there are countless awards shows (including the Oscars!), and the time for commencement ceremonies is coming into view. As such, I thought now would be a decent time to update my thoughts on the matter.

“What Is It That You Exactly Do Here?”

As the Executive Speechwriter here at Prosek, I occasionally get questioned in a way that brings me back to that famous scene in Office Space—“what is it that you exactly do here?” When it comes to my role at the firm, I’m responsible for much more than just drafting formal remarks to be shared from behind a podium; I’m also working on executives’ talking points for annual meetings, their talk-tracks for fireside chats, bylines/op-eds, and myriad internal communications—among other things.

This work can fall into buckets like executive voice or thought leadership. But at the end of the day, it really just comes down to the words, ideas, and quotes that fit the client and come across authentically.    

So that’s why I’ve found myself, on more than one occasion, telling a client or colleague that the goal for the piece we’re about to work on is to be unmemorable. Because the truth is: it’s often the most honest answer and the best advice at the moment.

The Perks of Being Unmemorable

Being memorable isn’t always a good thing. Think about it: if remarks at an investor meeting or talking points on the seventh panel of the day are memorable, it’s rarely for the right reasons. Someone probably went on too long, used some quotation that they thought sounded smart but didn’t quite work, said something needlessly provocative, repeated themselves, or went on too long.

I vividly recall one of the speeches at my college graduation, which was given by the famed actor and comedian Chevy Chase. It was long, disjointed, and comically vulgar at various points. It wasn’t that funny, but it was certainly memorable—and not in a good way. 

Now, this isn’t to say that you should phone in what you’re saying or writing. Unmemorable doesn’t mean a lack of effort in the same way that casual doesn’t mean sloppy. In this day and age, there are few opportunities to speak aren’t taped or transcribed. Using these opportunities to stay on message in a consistent way is a win, especially as you’re working to build a body of work and strengthen the trust of your clients and colleagues.

Also, whenever you’re delivering remarks, your tone and substance should match the occasion. For example, a commencement address is a different animal than your explanation of earnings to your workforce. It’s akin to knowing when to slap the ball to the opposite field instead of swinging for the fences.

In a way, by staying on message and taking a light touch, the audience may not remember your words, but they’ll probably remember your presence and professionalism.

Pick Your Spots

There are times when it’s smart to make waves—to say something that makes the contrarian case or that helps you establish a reputation as someone who’s worth listening to.

But it’s key to pick your spots. When it comes to speeches, fireside chats, and the like, the adage that all press is good press doesn’t apply. Sometimes, an unmemorable speech – one that doesn’t generate media coverage – is exactly what the moment calls for.

Otherwise, you’ll get people talking, and that’s not always the best thing.

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