Measuring the Motivators: How Should Organizations Assess Leadership Communication Efforts?


David Murray, Executive Director of the Professional Speechwriters Association

Executive communication is often the most expensive function of a communications department. Ironically, by most measures, it’s also the least strategically focused. The just-released 2016 membership study by the Professional Speechwriters Association (PSA) focused on “intentionality” in executive communication and came to these combined findings, which can only be described as twisted: 

Although two-thirds of professional speechwriters are involved in annual executive communication strategy planning, only 23 percent say that it’s their responsibility to place their leaders at the best forums to reach important audiences. It’s hard to believe, but most speaking opportunities originate not from proactive speaker placement but from incoming invitations. 

Only 41 percent of organizations even attempt to quantify the effectiveness of executive communications, which leaves at least 59 percent of organizations with not the faintest idea of whether they’re spending the right amount, too much, or too little. 

In any case, they’re spending a lot. Speechwriters are the best-paid specialists in most corporate communication departments, some of them making a quarter-million dollars a year and more. And the obscured cost — the cost that doesn’t come out of the communication department’s budget — is time spent by the executive preparing for the speech and traveling to deliver it. A prominent Fortune 100 speechwriter estimates the per-speech cost for his CEO at $60,000, and he thinks that’s being conservative. 

And they’re taking requests over the transom? It’s even worse than that, actually, because a number of speeches every year are given as favors — to the executive’s favorite charity, to an association run by her sorority sister, to a business conference run by his protégé. Imagine an executive trying to justify making an ad buy or an equipment purchase based on that. 

And if corporate communication directors are peeved by the lack of strategic discipline involved in their executive communication operation, they’re not as frustrated as the speechwriters, who want more than anything for their work to amount to something more than a lot of one-off vanity projects. Asked by the PSA survey how the exec comms could contribute more reliably to organizational goals, they fairly shouted:

“If my boss didn’t have a policy of speaking at every event she’s invited to — doesn’t leave a lot of time to be thoughtful and strategic, or to do research.” 

“If we brought some proactive planning to it. There’s very little of that in my company.” 

“If we would execute the strategy and stop being so reactive.” 

“If we integrated across the organization — look at all leaders’ speeches holistically.” 

“If we had fewer messages competing seriously with overarching messages.”

Looking for measurement standards 

Because it is so crowded with egos, executive communication will always run partly based on feelings — of obligation, of fear, of ambition. I have also observed that attempts to pin exec comm efforts strictly to strategic messages and key audiences often wind up generating matrices within matrices within matrices. “This year, Executive A is assigned three main messages under one central theme, which she will deliver to one internal and one external audience per quarter via speeches, monthly via her blog and weekly on Twitter. Now, for Executive B…” 

Measuring the effectiveness of executive communications amounts to little more than “The audience seemed to like it.” Or if you want to drill down to the real bottom line: “The boss seemed pleased.” 

Measurement guru Katie Paine recently spoke at a PSA event and gave the speechwriters her usual rigorous talk, seasoned by three decades of experience quantifying the effectiveness of communication. “Helpful to think about ways to quantify our results,” said one speechwriter afterward, “and also a little scary. Not sure I want to open the door to assessing my speeches based upon the outcome of some initiative or policy debate.” 

Another consultant poured her heart into developing a sophisticated software program that would quantify the effectiveness of a speech based on three dozen criteria. I was there when she presented it to a meeting of exec comm people. Crickets. Who wants to pay good money to find out a speech that went over well was actually a 3 on a scale of 1 to 10? 

Understandable. But then, how should organizations assess leadership communication efforts? How should they tie leadership communication to measurable — or at least describable — objectives? Respondents to the PSA survey said they engage in leadership communication to achieve five primary objectives: to show executives to be thought leaders, to enhance the organization’s reputation, to build the brand, to get media coverage and to engage employees. 

Pretty important goals, those. Too important to base executive communication largely on who happens to invite executives to speak. Too important to not seek some way of knowing whether the program is getting the proper bang for its buck. And certainly too important to throw up our hands and resign ourselves to operating by gut-feel this pricey, labor-intensive and intellectually demanding PR function. Speechwriters shouldn’t view leadership communication as a means of ego gratification, and their bosses shouldn’t view it that way either. 

Speaking of speeches, John F. Kennedy gave one once: “We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things,” he said, “not because they are easy, but because they are hard.” 

If a speech can send a man to the moon… 

David Murray is executive director of the Professional Speechwriters Association. He is also editor of Vital Speeches of the Day, a monthly magazine that collects the world’s best speeches. 

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