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Lesson learned from the Bush ‘Bullhorn Speech’

With much of the nation still reeling from the 9/11 attacks, President George W. Bush went to Ground Zero on Sept. 14, 2001, and delivered one of the most dramatic impromptu speeches ever given by a leader. What has become known as “the Bullhorn Speech” and the imagery of that moment are iconic — but it certainly didn’t start that way.

As Bush began his speech, things weren’t going well logistically. It was difficult for most in the audience of Ground Zero workers to see or hear the president, and that can be disastrous for any public speaker.

Anatomy of a SpeechA fireman standing atop a burned-out firetruck in the rubble from the Twin Towers offered a hand up to Bush so that he could get elevated enough for his audience of Ground Zero workers to see him. Bush began to speak again, but some still couldn’t hear him, and those who could hear him didn’t seem particularly moved by the prepared remarks he was trying to deliver.

And then, Bush did something extraordinary that all speakers can learn from – he adjusted his message to fit the needs of his audience.

“We can’t hear you,” someone in the distance had just yelled. That’s when Bush departed from his prepared remarks. He went authentic. He went impromptu. “I can hear you, the rest of the world hears you, and the people who knocked these buildings down will hear all of us soon.” The crowd burst into cheers and then began chanting “USA, USA, USA!”

Although his words were an impromptu reaction to the audience, the speech structure he used wasn’t. He used the “Power of Three” technique, with each phrase building to a crescendo: (1) I can hear you. (2) The world can hear you. (3) And soon, the bad guys are going to hear from all of us. 1-2-3 — pow! Even when you are speaking impromptu, you can employ tried and true speech techniques to add a powerful punch to your message.

When the initial chanting had subsided, Bush continued with some of his prepared remarks. At one point, someone in the audience yelled, “God bless America!” Bush, now in complete solidarity with the audience, picked up on the phrase and used it to conclude his remarks, again using the “Power of Three” technique. “Thank you for your hard work. Thank you for making the nation proud, and may God bless America.” The crowd again burst into chants of “USA, USA, USA!”

Another speech technique Bush employed was allowing the audience to voice its approval. When the crowd roared, Bush went silent; he didn’t try to yell over them. A good speech rule to follow is: don’t step on your own applause. Talking over your audience makes it hard for them to hear you and, more importantly, it robs the audience of an important emotional moment.

Throughout the speech, Bush didn’t, scream or overuse bravado. He did speak into the bullhorn louder but in a determined, controlled tone. He didn’t need a long speech to connect with his audience or convey the message that he was trying to deliver. Bush said the right words, in the right tone, at the right time and that’s what made this a great speech.

Many believe the Bullhorn Speech was the moment that the nation transformed from grief to resolve; a resolve to take the fight to the terrorists and avenge the attacks. Had Bush stuck to his prepared remarks and had he not pivoted to the needs of his audience, that moment wouldn’t have come on that day. Watch this short video of the actual event and note how the audience responds.

Here are the simple but powerful lessons public speakers and business presenters can learn from the Bullhorn Speech: Be seen. Be heard. Be authentic. Use powerful speech formulas and techniques even when speaking impromptu. And always, always, always, make your message about your audience.

Step Up and Lead: 3 Steps to Crisis Messages that Work

By Paul Barton
Principal Consultant

WHETHER it’s a small business, a large company, or the entire nation, when a crisis hits, people want to hear three message types, they want to hear them in a particular order, and they want to hear them right now. If you’re a business leader or a spokesperson for your organization, you need to be able to respond immediately and effectively to your employees, shareholders, the news media, and other key audiences. There’s a lot at risk, the stakes are high, and the clock is ticking.

The three message types can help you to respond like a good leader. To help you remember them, I’ve classified the essential message types as the three Hs: Heart, Heroism, and Hope. So, fasten your seatbelts; here’s how to use the three Hs.

1) Lead with Your Heart. First, people need to know you care before they care what you know. It sets the appropriate tone. Your audiences need to know you care in a credible, authentic way. If they don’t believe you truly care, they won’t listen to anything else you have to say.

2) Be a Hero, Do the Right Thing. Once people understand that you truly care, it’s time to “be a hero.” Talk about doing the right thing and speak with conviction and confidence. Begin to set the stage for solutions. “We won’t rest until we get to the bottom of this.” “We will spare no expense.” “We will put steps in place to make sure this never happens again.”

3) Close with a Hopeful Future. You’ve shown you care and you shown that you are committed to doing the right thing. Now close with future-oriented messages of hope and inclusiveness. “I know that, with your help, we will defeat this.” “The things that bring us together are stronger than the things that pull us apart.” “Together, we will get through this.”

The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

You don’t have to look far for a crisis these days. There have been plenty of real-world examples in 2020 and plenty of leaders trying to respond to them with varying degrees of success. We’ve seen the good, the bad, and the ugly. Think about leaders who spoke about COVID-19 and what needed to be done. Or think about the tragic murder of George Floyd and how leaders responded in the midst of the worldwide outrage that followed. Who were the leaders who conveyed messages that resonated with you and made you feel confident and hopeful? Who were the leaders who conveyed messages that didn’t leave you feeling confident or maybe even filled you with enough rage to throw your shoes at your TV set? Pres. Trump, Dr. Anthony Fauci, former Vice Pres. Joe Biden, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, New York City Mayor Bill di Blasio, California Gov. Gavin Newsom, Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey, the Rev. Al Sharpton, and many others all had their moment in front of the microphones.

I’m betting the leaders that resonated with you followed the three Hs. You believed they cared and were speaking from their heart. You liked the conviction they conveyed as they began to talk about what needed to be done, and you liked how they painted a picture of a brighter more inclusive future. Those that had you screaming back at your TV didn’t show they cared, or at least not in a credible way, they didn’t speak about doing the right thing with resolve, and they didn’t offer a hopeful future or talk about bringing people together. Learn from their examples and think about how you can apply the three Hs for your audiences.

The three Hs can help you be a more effective leader when people need you the most.

But wait, there’s more…

The three Hs are just one part of a simple but powerful, step-by-step methodology we’ve put together that allows you to craft crisis messages that turn heads, win hearts, and get real results. This methodology was put together over decades by crisis communication experts and used in multiple situations across multiple industries.

You can learn the entire system in under 50 minutes for under $50 in our online course. Oh, and there’s a money-back guarantee so you really have nothing to lose. You know you need this. The next crisis is coming. Everyone will be looking to you. Will you be ready to step up and lead?