Creating a Christmas Carol: The Art of Great Holiday Speechmaking

Years ago, when I first started freelancing as a corporate speechwriter, I was approached by an old college friend with a request to edit a speech for his company’s annual Christmas ball. For our purposes, let’s call him “Ebenezer”. The event was to be held at a fashionable Atlanta hotel; invitations had gone out to nearly 600 employees and their invited guests. No expense had been spared in preparing the feast or in booking the lavish post-dinner entertainment. In the words of my larger-than-life client, it was to be “exactly as my father had always wanted it – nothing less than Bacchanalia for everyone.” Indeed, despite the ups and downs of the family business, the Christmas party had always been remembered as “the best time our employees ever had.”

Of course, I winced at that last part. Corporate speechwriters rarely get invitations to company balls. For the most part, speechwriters live by a very simple creed – we are rarely seen, and almost never heard from. C’est la vie.

But as I absorbed his draft, I became painfully aware of how much I didn’t want to be at that party. With the exception of a joke at the beginning, and a completely disembodied New Year’s verse at the end, the speech was nearly identical to one he had previously delivered before the company’s stockholders. It was a litany of market conditions and leading indicators, a summary of the pain that had been doled out in the old year and the pain still to come after January 1st. In his usual style, Ebenezer’s speech was truthful, straightforward, informative, and minutely detailed. In other words, his speech was every stockholder’s dream.

And every partygoer’s nightmare.

Ebenezer looked at me from across my desk. He was beaming, with a smile not unlike that of a schoolboy expecting his first A in English Composition. “Well, what do you think, Jack? Pretty good stuff, hey?”

I looked up at my friend from behind the final page of his speech. “Ebenezer,” I said, “What are you doing on Christmas Eve?”

He looked puzzled. “You know, same as always, Jack. Up to Vermont with the family. Why do you ask?”

I deftly pushed the copy across the table. It was time for some brutal honesty of my own. “Well, I would highly advise that you send your family away to your mom’s this year. Because if you deliver that speech, I am convinced that the ghost of your father will come back to scare the stuffing out of you. He will be followed in turn by the spirits of the last three CEO’s of his company. Each will warn you to watch your back and to start exercising your stock options.”

Ebenezer looked stunned, and sank back in a recliner. “That bad, Jack?” I took a red marker and a highlighter from beneath my desk. “That bad, my friend. Now, can we get started?”

Writing for the Occasion

In 1826, the great American orator Daniel Webster reminded his students that effective communication “does not consist in speech. Words and phrases may be marshaled in every way, but they cannot encompass it. It must consist in the speaker, in the subject, and in the occasion.” My experience has taught me that most CEO’s have mastered the first two parts of Webster’s triad. Consider the example of Ebenezer. He is a handsome and well-spoken man, with an excellent vocabulary and a powerful stage presence. He has that rare ability to command a corporate audience right from the words, “Good morning, Ladies and Gentlemen.” And Ebenezer is a master of his subject area. Like the engineer-entrepreneurs of the 19th Century, he has developed an uncanny ability to precisely anticipate everything from shifting consumer preferences to the impact of new technologies – before they even exist.

Yet my friend always had great difficulty adjusting his message and his speaking style to less formal speaking situations. This is not surprising. Anyone who has ever taught a seminar in public speaking knows that different corporate cultures breed different types of speakers. Sales people talk 10 – 15% faster than average, and naturally tend to clip their sentences and curb their vocabulary. Analysts are slower paced during their presentations and more circumspect in their language. These speaking styles prove to be very resilient over the course of a career. My experience has taught me that it is quite a challenge for professionals to change the way they communicate.

Judy is a case in point. She started with an MBA from an Ivy League school and climbed her way to the district presidency of a large national bank. She was in high demand as a guest speaker for community engagements, yet always found her speaking style lacking. “I feel so stiff behind the podium,” complained Judy. “A bank executive is supposed to project a conservative image. So I absolutely rot when it comes to telling a joke or to saying something warm and meaningful at a retirement luncheon.”

Judy is not alone. CEOs are always in high demand when it comes to public speaking – both within their areas of competence and in the community at large. Any opportunity to speak on behalf of oneself or one’s corporation should never be taken lightly. Learning how to adapt a style of public speaking from boardroom to ballroom is nothing less than a core competency.

Beyond Scrooge

The vast majority of executives who approach me at Yuletide are not unlike my friend Ebenezer. In preparing for a holiday speech, they can’t resist giving their employees a detailed summary of the past year’s business conditions, and a forecast of what lies in store for the coming year. I have always thought this approach is flawed. It represents a missed opportunity on the part of a CEO to communicate a broadly positive message to the very people who will make or break the company.

I am loath to preach a stepped approach to effective communication. Speechcraft is an art that requires patience, practice, and much trial and error to master. But the following guidelines should help any business leader to write a truly meaningful and inspirational speech for a company holiday party:

  1. Know thy audience. OK, I admit that this is one of the oldest rules in the book of public speaking. But it has special significance in relation to a holiday party, since half the audience will consist of spouses or invited guests. Any speech that is too full of facts or figures will reach only your employees – their significant others will impatiently tap their toes, wondering when the bar will reopen. Likewise, a speech that is even mildly harsh in tone or that contains any references to employee shortcomings will also flop. Let’s face it – spouses like to see their loved ones praised in public, not ridiculed. Even in a bad year, it is important to keep the tone of this speech positive and upbeat. Try to be inclusive in the language chosen, emphasizing the idea of “our larger family” when referring to both employees and their guests.
  2. Beware of alcohol. Don’t get me wrong here. I stand for moderation, but not necessarily for temperance. For those who choose to imbibe, the consumption of alcohol is an accepted part of any company party. But every speaker should be aware of the effect that alcohol has on an audience. If a holiday party features an open or cash bar, a CEO can expect the average member of an audience to have consumed between 2 to 3 units of alcohol by curtain time. Men will usually consume more, women somewhat less. That means their attention span will markedly decrease. Human nature being what it is, alcohol also tends to bring our egos closer to the surface. An imbibing audience is usually less receptive to a speaker who is too formal or whose message is overtly critical.In my seminars, I teach a simple rule related to alcohol and public speaking – subtract one minute from your planned speech for every unit of alcohol consumed by the audience. And keep the speech simple, lighthearted, and humorous. Otherwise, the speaker will witness the audience commence a vanishing act, both literally and figuratively.
  3. Use an informal speaking posture. A podium or a speaker’s stand is really nothing more than a layman’s pulpit. It is used to attribute authority and importance to the speaker. While that is normally a good thing, such a prop can be too formal at a Christmas or New Year’s party. One of the most common techniques for setting an air of informality is simply to forgo the podium altogether and to speak directly to the audience. Just remove the mike (cordless, hopefully) and stand off to the side. The trick here is to ensure that the CEO is always introduced formally, by a host who stands behind the podium.
  4. Start with humor. With the exception of a eulogy, no speech should begin with the words “thanks for coming this evening.” Besides being bland, such an introduction is also disingenuous, since no employee worth his salt would dare to miss the company holiday party. On the other hand, an introduction that incorporates humor shows that the speaker is confident, self-assured, and willing to risk letting his or her hair down.At one holiday party held by a large telecommunications firm, a CEO named Mike took the stage after a somewhat inebriated MC described him as “the warmest, most sincere, most compassionate human being that any of us could ever hope to work for”. Wisely, Mike changed his tact and approached the podium almost apologetically, fumbling with the microphone for what seemed an eternity. “That was an incredibly generous introduction, Brett. But I regret to inform you that Santa Claus was otherwise engaged this evening. Sorry, but I will have to do.” Besides the roaring laughter that came up from the audience, this simple display of humor and humility made Mike appear relaxed and readily accessible to his employees. In his own words, “that was the only speech I ever enjoyed making.”
  5. Praise the Unknown Employee. Here, I borrow from an old English Yuletide custom called Boxing Day. On the day after Christmas, it was customary for English nobility to recognize the efforts of their servants by preparing them a special feast. As part of a holiday speech, I recommend that CEO’s try to personally recognize that diligent, hard-working employee whose contributions always go unsung. Marcus was one such individual. Within three months of arriving at a large Philadelphia law firm, the unassuming Marcus quietly and efficiently revamped the firm’s IT system – while patiently enduring the pent-up frustration of every attorney and legal secretary. So when the senior partner personally awarded Marcus a brand new laptop at the annual holiday bash, he received a standing ovation for his beneficence. The words “You’re gettin’ a Dell, Dude” never sounded better.
  6. Unveil a Charity Initiative. Everyone knows the story of how Ebenezer Scrooge turned away the two London businessmen who sought donations for the needy (“the Treadmill and the Poor Law are in full vigor, then?). The company party is a perfect opportunity for business leaders to turn over a new leaf as community benefactors. Besides the obvious humanitarian benefit, such an initiative is a great way to enhance a spirit of goodwill among one’s employees.Matt arrived at his company’s extravagant New Years Eve party dressed as Santa Claus. He was accompanied by six elves, all inner-city kids who had attended one of the summer computer camps Matt sponsored. Towards the end of his speech, Matt placed his big red bag in the middle of the dance floor and deposited into it a check for $1,000. “If anyone feels the way I do about these kids, you know where my bag is.” Matt left his party with nearly $20,000 in donations. Now, that’s a lot of goodwill!
  7. Always finish with a toast. Toasting is an art form in itself, one that gives any speech a clean, crisp finish. It also adds to the spirit of inclusiveness, since all toasts are by definition participatory. No holiday speech is complete without one.One of the wittiest toasts I have ever come across was rendered aboard a riverboat by the president of a publishing concern. Emily was stuck for a good toast until she came across some authentic riverboat lore from Samuel Clemens’s days on the Mississippi. My client discovered that a “twain” referred to the depth of the river below the vessel’s keel. Dangerously shallow water was signaled as “quarter twain”. “Half twain” meant conditions were improving, and the word “mark” signaled deep water, full speed ahead. So her audience roared with delight when Emily climbed above the wheelhouse. “Ladies and gentlemen,” she began, “1999 has been the best year in this firm’s history. And thanks to you, next year looks even brighter. So please join me in a toast to – Mark Twain!” Brilliant!

The Life of the Party

Over a bottle of very old port – or maybe two – Ebenezer and I completely rewrote his speech. He was a hit and left the stage to a standing ovation. Feeling redeemed and quite pleased with himself, he spent a quiet and uneventful Christmas Eve with his family. In a postcard from Stowe, he informed me that “we did get a little nervous when the power went out around midnight.” But it appears that all his family’s ghosts are still resting comfortably.

Ebenezer chose to finish the speech with a toast of his own, ignoring the material I had recommended. I would be less than honest if I didn’t admit that his simple and folksy coda was actually far better than mine. It certainly deserves an encore:

Here’s to the Chef
Who makes sauces so dear,
And here’s to the Barkeep,
Who pours such good cheer.
To our friends and our families,
and anyone not here,
The Best of the Season,
and a Prosperous New Year!

Well said, Ebenezer. Well said.