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May 20, 2014

In this Season of Speeches, It’s Time to Inspire

Maybe you were too busy nursing a hangover, or worried about your flattened hair under that ugly graduation cap. But on college graduation day, some of us had the good fortune of a truly inspiring commencement speech.

If that means you, do you remember how it made you feel?

There’s nothing cooler than that feeling of accomplishment and promise on your college graduation day. You’re literally standing at the precipice of a great adventure. Top-tier commencement speakers know how to tap that feeling and take full advantage of it, to the point where you leave the arena feeling like you can indeed change the world.

While I wasn’t at the speech, I think Facebook Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg accomplished that recently in her commencement address to the nearly 2,000 graduates of the City Colleges of Chicago. Posted online, the full speech gave me goose bumps.

What’s the lesson here for business leaders? It’s fairly simple but one I think too many corporate leaders ignore today: INSPIRE. If you can offer even a fraction of the attention Sandberg gave to motivating her audience – your employees – you can accomplish more than you ever thought possible. Let me put this in Sandberg’s words: “Dream bigger – both for yourself and the world around you.”

Maybe you need some evidence to support this path, so how’s this: More than half the U.S. population now hates their job, according to researchers at the Conference Board. This lack of employee engagement costs companies billions in productivity every year.

On the flip side, you can do so much by truly engaging your workforce.

One of the keys to Sandberg’s speech is that it’s full of stories, not boring statistics and data points. At the same time, all the narratives have a point that directly connects to her City College audience, made of up of many minorities and immigrants and older students with families of their own. Sandberg shares accounts of her immigrant ancestors looking to build a new life in the U.S. Her grandfather’s graduation from the City College of New York, and how that opened up new opportunities for future generations and Sandberg herself. Her first mistakes on the job, and lessons learned. Her insecurities growing up; the feelings of inadequacy she needed to conquer in order to succeed.

These anecdotes prompt interesting questions for corporate leaders too:

  • Which of your life experiences can serve as inspiration for your employees?
  • What can you share that makes you vulnerable and relatable? For example, what was your first career experience?
  • What mistakes have you made that helped you become a better leader?
  • Furthermore, what can you share that personally connects you to your company’s vision?

Addressing some of these topics can make you a much more effective speaker and motivator. That’s not to say that one nice speech alone will do the trick. Still, finding the words to make your employees feel they are on the precipice of a great adventure with you and your company is an impressive start.

Tomorrow: Speech Inspiration Part 2 - We break apart Sandberg’s commencement speech in more detail, offering examples for turning her messages into employee motivation.

What are the personal stories you can tell to inspire your workforce? 

- David Grossman


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