By any standards, Donald Trump’s speech to the annual Boy Scouts of America (BSA) Jamboree was a case of the wrong guy in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Far from making any efforts to engage with the innocence and hope of his youthful audience, the President instead wandered off into numerous policy areas that seemed to emerge from his words in a random, disorganised jumble.
As if that were not enough, he also regaled the assembled throng of impressionable youngsters with inappropriate hints and innuendos about adult activities, and proceeded to goad them into booing his predecessor Barack Obama, who – unlike Trump – actually served as a scout.
While this was an obvious attempt to mine the Jamboree for cheap, Pavlovian reactions, the crowd could hardly have been blamed for their compliant response: after all, the BSA was founded on principles of discipline and good behaviour, and they had the President standing in front of them.
All in all, there was very little in Trump’s speech that had anything to do with scouts or scouting, and the reaction to the event in many quarters has been furious. Parents have hit out at the President’s use of the Jamboree as a political platform, and others are pulling their children out of the BSA altogether.
In many ways, Trump’s appearance at the Jamboree echoed Tony Blair’s famously painful speech to the Women’s Institute in 2000, wherein the former Prime Minister had nothing to say about the achievements of his hosts and instead focused on those of his government. His reward was an embarrassing round of slow handclaps.
What do these events say about the preparations that leaders must undertake before they turn up to public-speaking engagements – particularly if they’re aiming to inspire staff?
“The golden rule of presenting is ‘Know Your Audience’,” says The Institute of Leadership & Management's head of research, policy and standards Kate Cooper. “It’s only if you know your audience that you can then adjust your message, tweak the phraseology and – most importantly – have a complete idea of the effect you want to have on them. Why are you presenting to them at all? What’s the call to action to which you want them to rally?
“Closely connected to that is the necessity to respect your audience, too. How can you hope to have authentic communication with people if you don’t really understand who they are, why they’re there, or what makes you a deserving speaker? To be in a room or a field with dozens or hundreds of people paying you attention is a huge privilege.”
On Trump’s scouting sortie, Cooper notes: “it would seem that on this occasion, he hasn’t done his homework. He’s just turned up and relied entirely on his own impulses, and hasn’t respected the people before him sufficiently to talk to them with due empathy. Honouring people and the time that they’re giving to listen to you is vital. An audience is entitled to be treated well.”
She adds: “This extends to time management. We’ve all been in presentations where the speaker has overrun their slot. It amazes me that people do this, because you always notice that as soon as the allocated time is up, the audience starts to get restless and fidgety. If you’ve got too much material for the available time, then you haven’t done enough preparation. There’s also an issue here with a lack of connectedness: you should be able to pick up a vibe from people in the room that, actually, by a certain point, you’ve said enough.
“However experienced a speaker you are, you can’t short circuit the fundamental framework of: i) Who am I talking to? ii) What do I want to say to them, and iii) How am I going to get my message across to them in the most effective way? Those rules change with every place you go to and every event you speak at – so you have to prepare.”
For thoughts on how to use storytelling to inspire and motivate, check out this learning item from the Institute
Other resources of interest
- 18 August 2017
- 17 August 2017