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What makes a speech great? There are a lot of good speeches and good speakers. But a great speech is one you remember.
Admiral “Bill” McRaven spoke Friday night at the top of One World Trade Center. He said he opted to go off script and confessed that his wife Georgeann, who was sitting in the audience, was concerned.
If McRaven’s name sounds familiar and you don’t live in the sphere of military special operations, then you may know him as the Make-Your-Bed Admiral whose University of Texas at Austin commencement speech went viral in 2014.
Friday’s gathering wasn’t your regular audience. The room was full of Army special operations aviators, their families and guests, 9-11 survivors, first responders who were there that fateful day. These were the people who risked lives, whose loved ones paid the ultimate sacrifice. All were there to commemorate Operation Neptune’s Spear,* the anniversary of the capture of Osama Bin Laden 11 years ago.
Folks were waiting for McRaven, as they sat on the 102nd floor in the building many call the Freedom Tower, which overlooks ground zero. As the tallest building in the United States, it also overlooks New York City, the surrounding river and harbor, the Statue of Liberty, her hand raised high. It is 1776 feet high. The exterior walls of the floor were 360 degrees of glass. A guest at my table was concerned about the height, with good reason. I suggested hugging the interior walls.
I smell the carved New York strip steak, as the dinner is served to the table guests simultaneously. An engraved ammunition box with Night Stalker and Navy SEAL logos sits next to white hydrangea, an unlikely pair of centerpieces. The clink of china and the chatter die down as the Admiral steps to the podium.
As you read about the speech, consider the audience that evening, the topics of each story, and details he shares.
McRaven says he will share three stories. His father was a career air force officer and the family lived abroad. As a child he loved to watch Superman and when he visited New York with his father, he kept looking up. Finally, his father asked what he was looking for and young Bill told him. His father turned and pointed to a police officer. Son, that is Superman right there. My daughter was sitting at my table, having listened to the Make-your-bed speech more than ten times, she smiled. She tells me later, that she knew the story was for the firemen and the first responders, many who were in the room.
President Obama asks me to confirm that it was Bin Laden, McRaven says. He has to do a positive identification of the body. Bin Laden was known as the Pacer, because he was notorious for walking back and forth, something they picked up from surveillance. Bin Laden was also tall, six-feet-four inches to be exact. McRaven checks the remains. The face was pretty bad but looked like Bin Laden. McRaven is six-feet-two inches tall and he was about to lie down beside the body to confirm the height. He stops himself, realizing that an admiral doing that may not be appropriate. He looks around and calls over a young soldier, asks him his height, and has him lie down. Yep. He gets back to the President, who listens to McRaven. The mission had required sending in a back-up Chinook when a Black Hawk had crashed inside the compound.*
Obama says to me, ‘Bill, we give you an 84-million dollar helicopter and you don’t have an 8 dollar measuring tape?‘ The audience erupts in cheers.
I talk to my table host, a crew chief from that historic mission by the name of Homer Daigle. He was in charge of the crew and got everyone out when the Black Hawk went down. He said the crew was supposed to fast-rope into the compound, but because of the crash had clamored out to safety. The pilot was not a tall guy and used the rope to slide out in time. It was an inside joke, that while the crew did not fast-rope as planned, the pilot did.
For the last story, McRaven says that It’s a Wonderful Life is his favorite movie. He tells us about the cast and the protagonist George’s frustration with all that is wrong in his life. When he is at the bridge thinking about suicide, he saves an angel from drowning named Clarence. When George wishes that he had never been born, Clarence grants the wish. George gets to see his life play out, learns of his brother’s death in the icy pond because he wasn’t there to save him. And he learns of the deaths that his brother would have prevented in the war, because his brother didn’t live to serve. McRaven talks about the difference one person can make, one act of kindness. And this ends his speech.
The stories resonate with every guest in the audience. The first responders and the airmen are the “Superman” in the room. He satisfies the curiosity guests have about the mission to capture the architect behind the murder of thousands of Americans, just next to the building where we are dining. And he appeals to the individual, the everyman and everywoman who came to honor these good people, the men and women of the 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment who embarked on a perilous mission. And, who do so every day, taking on thousands of untold missions, leaving families and personal lives on a moment’s notice, arriving in time and on target, plus or minus 30 seconds. I kid you not. Plus or minus 30 seconds. These folks have been continuously deployed since 9/11.
Guests make a beeline to McRaven, to shake his hand, to get a selfie. He has lines and circles of people wherever he goes.
What makes the speech great?
In McRaven’s own words, “If I can’t make this commencement speech memorable, I will at least make it short.” He says this when he spoke to 8000 graduates at University of Texas and he does both. That speech is memorable and it is short. He looks at the audience, he pauses, he modulates. He is reading from his script, the ten lessons he crafted with care. He packs a lot into 19 minutes. And viewers around the world have watched it over 15 million times.
On Friday, McRaven sticks with the writing trinity, the three parts, three acts, opening-body-closing, three stories, three points. He is comfortable in this forum with the military.
- First, he pays a tribute to the heroes who were there, with the story of Superman.
- He tells us about the mission and shares details like the measuring tape.
- And, he says that each person can make a difference in his Wonderful Life example.
He connects with the audience by making it real.
He makes fun of himself, an aspect of good speeches, self-deprecation, not overdone but authentic. Here is a man of extraordinary accomplishment and he does silly things. He too is capable of making mistakes. This endears him to us.
He remains humble in his interactions; he asks names, looks you in the eye, shakes hands, and listens. He may walk with Kings but does not lose the common touch.*
Last and most importantly, he is a story teller. Maybe it’s something a sailor learns to do, since life at sea is long and tedious, that to be human is to tell stories. Idylls, shanties, and ditties are the lore of the seas.
He takes from a mission what is telling and he crafts the story around it. And it’s that story that makes him human, that makes the mission relatable and lasting. My guest tells her daughter about the measuring tape. My husband turns on It’s a Wonderful Life and it’s not even Christmas.
McRaven has an undergraduate degree in journalism. It has served him well: he came Friday to tell stories to help the soldiers and families of an elite aviation unit, to make it personal. Good deeds and good people inspire us. Greatness humbles.
A lot of great men give speeches. On occasion a common man may give a great speech. This is a great speech given by a great man. And, I will remember it.
- Know your audience – who do you want to reach and what do you want to say
- Objective – what do you want to achieve with speech
- Open with humor – something light, self-deprecating
- Stories – find and tell ones that resonate, include only essential details
- Craft each sentence, edit/revise, cut. Make each word count
- Closing – hit the keynotes, the “music” you want to last
- Practice – every minute in public speaking is valuable time for the audience. Make each point relevant.
- Compelling AND short. Cut. Make it as short as possible with maximum effect.
- Delivery- practice and record. Listen. Pause, breathe. Practice.
*Operation Neptune’s Spear was the mission to capture Osama Bin Laden and occurred nearly ten years after the events of 9/11. Doug Englen consents to an interview for the first time in 2020. (Military Times, Exclusive: Legendary special operations aviator reveals bin Laden mission details for the first time, Alex Quade. March 17, 2020)
*Or walk with Kings –nor lose the common touch, is a line from the poem “If” by Rudyard Kipling and part of the definition of what it is to be a Man, my son!
*McRaven wrote a 612-page thesis at the Naval Postgraduate School (NPS) which challenged historical principles of war, first established by Carl von Clausewitz. He helped build a new program around special operations and low intensity conflict in 1993 which has become a pivotal aspect of the curriculum for senior officers and a foundational philosophy of special operations. He was one of the more senior officers when he arrived, having deferred multiple times because of his involvement in operations. He credits this two-year period in school as a time dedicated to thinking and analysis, not something he had much of when he was deployed. His idea of what is now dubbed McRaven’s Inverted Pyramid underlies much of his own philosophy which he applied in the following decades. “A simple plan, carefully concealed, repeatedly and realistically rehearsed, and executed with surprise, speed, and purpose.” The Pen and the Spear, Dale Kuska (In Review Magazine, Naval Postgraduate School, April 2012)