Here’s a leadership case study: It’s May 29, 2020, in Atlanta, Georgia. It’s four days after the murder of George Floyd. You’re the mayor of the city and you learn that a peaceful demonstration has been followed by widespread violence and looting.

What do you do?

Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms stepped up to the podium and spoke to the city, and in particular, to the looters. Her speech was about five minutes long and it was entirely unscripted. If you haven’t seen it already, watch it.

I’ve watched it half a dozen times, and it is compelling every time.

The makings of a great leadership speech

When I was in business school, we studied Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I have a dream” speech. We analyzed why it was so remarkable and impactful. Of course, one reason was the setting and the moment. Another was the speaker — a man of towering integrity, passion, and courage. A third was the speech itself — the words, the cadence, the flow of the speech.

In The Wall Street Journal, columnist Sam Walker did a similar analysis of Mayor Bottoms’ speech. He highlighted a number of techniques she used to convey her message so powerfully:

  1. She used no notes and never broke eye contact.
  2. She connected to her audience not primarily as the mayor but as a mother.
  3. She showed her vulnerability, but she never lost control. She started calmly and slowly. Her voice quavered at one point. She showed intense emotion. She used silence.
  4. She focused on behavior instead of condemning people’s character.
  5. She offered solutions. “If you want change in America, go and register to vote!”
  6. She shifted her pronouns. She started with “I” and then “you,” ending with “we.”

Most senior business leaders will be called on at some time in their careers to give a speech in a time of crisis — not as severe as the battle for civil rights or the anger and despair following the killing of George Floyd, but crises nonetheless. The leader’s job will be to provide guidance, hope, and community. Watching these two leaders speak with such passion, clarity, and moral authority shows us how it is done.

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