A Speech Is Like a Christmas Tree

December 2022
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As we approach the holiday season I’m reminded that a corporate speech is like a Christmas tree. 

You don’t need to celebrate Christmas to understand the analogy — you just need to have spent a few moments in the communication function. 

Is it going to be a hot mess? An overloaded jumble of mismatched content that offends your senses? Or will it be an elegant, inspiring, streamlined beauty that conveys a sense of harmony and unity?

The outcome is up to us — and an influential ally or two.

The typical speech process

When I was 8 years old, my mother was out of the room for maybe an hour and the four kids turned the decorating process into a contest to see who could throw the biggest clumps of tinsel from the farthest distance onto the tree.

When mom returned and saw the result she nearly cried. We were pretty sure Christmas was ruined.

A similar, though less unruly, thing happens inside an organization. The CEO has their big annual speech to the troops or customers or shareholders, and every department vies to load up this prestigious, once-a-year platform with their pet priorities.

HR wants a plug for their new compensation policy. The Innovation Task Force is looking to roll out their next Big Idea. Marketing has some cool brand videos to show. The Safety team wants its record of accident reductions recognized.

And everybody has to be represented on the tree so no one feels slighted. We can’t mention this group without also giving a nod to the other two. Or three. Or ten.

Eventually the speech becomes a bloated hodgepodge of awkwardly juxtaposed ideas. And the communication team is struck trying to make it all fit together.

Does this sound familiar? Well, it’s the natural result when the proverbial adult leaves the room and the kids are in charge. It’s a “bottom-up” process — content before strategy.

The way it should be

But there’s a better way. And it starts with a strong communicator who has the ear of the leadership. Or one who is allied with a champion who understands communication and has the authority to say no.

Under this process, the team starts with a strategy: “This is what we need to accomplish with this speech.” They tie it to the organization’s priorities, look at the landscape to see which issues support or reinforce those priorities, find the connecting threads and create a tight outline that captures it all.

Going back to our analogy, they decide that this year’s Christmas tree is going to be decorated in silver and red, with white lights and modern glass ornaments.

But then Purchasing has a bunch of cool blue decorations they got at cost, Sales thinks flashing multicolor lights would add swagger, Finance says strings of popcorn would be cheaper, and Quality feels vintage wooden ornaments would be more durable.

The answers have to be no, no, no and no. None of those things fit the plan. None will result in a cohesive, coherent final product. 

That tree would look awful in the window. And that speech would fall utterly flat.

A little holiday grace

Now I’ll be the first to admit that this is easier said than done. It’s hard to balance the needs of all these competing constituencies. 

And in my career there have definitely been times where I have to invent a justification for an off-theme piece of décor. Or tuck it onto a branch where hopefully no one will notice that it’s out of place.

What I always try to emphasize is that there are countless other channels for communicating these issues and for recognizing people’s accomplishments. And if they’re crammed into an overstuffed speech that nobody can stand to watch, then nobody wins.

Now while I can’t guarantee this will bring peace to your holiday season, it will result in a better, more cohesive final product.

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