Real Life Speeches: Alan Greenspan Gives A Keynote

by drjim on June 9, 2009

Alan Greenspan Gave A Keynote Speech At The HIMSS Conference

Alan Greenspan Gave A Keynote Speech At The HIMSS Conference

Even if you don’t work in the world of high-finance, you surely know who Alan Greenspan is. He was the chairman of the U.S. Federal Reserve from 1987 to 2006. There’s no question that this guy is smart, but can he deliver a good keynote speech?

Where It Happened

While attending the recent HIMSS health care show up in Chicago, I had an opportunity to watch Greenspan in action as he gave a keynote speech. Now you have to understand that he was speaking on the third day of a 3-day conference and generally the crowds would have thinned out by now, but that wasn’t the case. The hall in which he gave his speech had a seating capacity of between 15,000 – 20,000 and it was pretty much full.

What caught my interest was that people were not showing up because they thought that Greenspan was a good speaker. No, they were showing up because they wanted to hear the information that they thought that he would be communicating: how did the current recession come about and when will it end?

The Introduction

The lead up to Greenspan’s keynote speech was a spectacular Hollywood introduction. Lights flashed, the speakers boomed with an announcer’s voice, and a brief film played that showed all of Greenspan’s many accomplishments. This was followed up by the Chairman of the HIMSS organization coming on stage and reading a prepared introduction for Greenspan. What speaker could ask for a better intro?

The Speech

So I know that the question that you are dying to have answered is “how did he do?”. The answer is that Alan Greenspan is not a very good keynote speaker; however, the audience hung on his every word. Perhaps some explination is needed here:

  • Technical Knowledge: Greenspan knows his stuff. He was there to explain how the U.S. economy works and the introduction plus the words that came out of his mouth confirmed that he really knows his stuff.
  • Hands: Greenspan’s #1 problem with public speaking is that he, just like so many other speakers, has no idea what to do with his hands. During his keynote speech his hands spent the time traveling from his pants pockets to being clasped and back again. It was a big room and only his face was displayed on the jumbo-tron screens, but it was distracting none the less.
  • Technical Content: I’m not sure what the rest of the audience was expecting, but I was anticipating a watered-down speech on basic economics. I was flat out wrong. Greenspan held no punches back and used very technical economic terms in his speech about how the world’s economy operates.
  • Pacing: The stage that Greenspan was giving his keynote speech on was HUGE. He was equipped with a wireless mic and so he could go anywhere. Unfortunately, he did. He paced back and forth and moved from side to side. Now there is no problem doing this if it supports your speech, but there was no clear linkage between his movements and his speech.
  • Using Notes: The first 25% of Greenspan’s keynote was delivered pretty much how you would expect a keynote to be delivered – he had some notes that he referred to occasionally, but the rest of the time he looked at the audience and spoke. However, just a little bit of the way into his speech, something strange happened – he picked up his notes and started reading from them word-for-word. The impact of his speech went way down when it felt like he was reading a book to us.

What Was Learned From All Of This

I had been very excited to listen to Greenspan speak – he is basically a rock-star in the world of finance. I came away from his keynote speech feeling just a little bit let down. On one hand, I was amazed at just how powerful a reputation can be in drawing people to come to a speech just to hear what the speaker has to say. Substance over style so to speak.

On the other hand, the reading word-for-word from notes really disappointed me. Then an interesting thing happened, I think that I figured out why he did it. Greenspan seemed to be a perfectly competent speaker. I don’t think that he NEEDED to read his speech from his notes. However, I now think that he is such an important person that the words that come out of his mouth can still move markets.

This means that, just like the President of the Unites States, he has to be very careful about what he says (and how he says it). If he had said that “… the recession is going to last for another 5 years…” then the stock market would have plunged the next day. Perhaps reading his speech was a way to protect us all from words that are too powerful…!

Questions For You

Have you ever attended a speech because you really wanted to know more about what was going to be talked about? Did you attend because you knew that the speaker was good or despite who the speaker was? How did it turn out – did you get what you wanted? Leave me a comment and let me know what you are thinking.

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What We’ll Be Talking About Next Time

One question that I keep getting asked over and over by speakers that I am working with is if storytelling is such a powerful communication tool, then why isn’t it used more in business settings? It’s a good question, but the answer is a little bit complicated…

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{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Sarah Gershman June 17, 2009 at 10:36 pm

Great post! I totally agree with your analysis – sometimes each word matters too much to mess around with. I think that there are ways to read from your notes and still connect and be present with your audience. I just blogged on this very topic – sarahgershman.blogspot.com – and would appreciate your feedback!

Thanks,
Sarah

Reply

Dr. Jim Anderson June 21, 2009 at 8:18 pm

Sarah: I checked out your post and I think that you hit it on the head – sometimes you’ve just got to do what you’ve got to do. What’s caught my attention recently is the comments that President Obama is getting about his speaking style. What I think that many of us are forgetting is that candidate Obama could pretty much say anything and get away with it; however, President Obama has to be a lot more careful with his words. Lessons for all of us to learn from…!

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