Goals, Jobs, and Greatness

Goals, Jobs, and Greatness

Just five hours after the Space Shuttle Challenger exploded President Reagan delivered a 649 word address. It’s considered one of the greatest speeches of all time, and I agree.

Even decades later, it might seem a bit crass to talk about the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster as an example of greatness. For many, myself included, these events left an indelible mark on our childhood. Yet the story of how this speech came to be is instructive and only deepens my respect for all involved.

Speechwriter Peggy Noonan wrote it, and Reagan delivered it with few changes. Noonan tells the story in her book On Speaking Well. I cannot improve on it, so I’ll stick what it taught me.

[Aside: Noonan has gone on to political punditry but let’s step back from the politics. We’re talking about communications here, where it’s hard to deny Noonan’s street-cred. Moreover, this isn’t a love letter to Reagan but he clearly falls into the same category.]

Noonan is talented, but she is also very smart. She didn’t start by putting words together, she began by understanding the goal of the speech and then started thinking about the job it had to do. Everything else flowed from this, so what are goals and jobs?

Goals are big. Goals are what YOU want to achieve. In this case the goal was:

“Ensure nothing ends; we continue to push on into space.”

High-stakes enough? (Look at this through the lens of 1986 cold war politics if you are not convinced.)

Jobs are just as important. They focus on what you need to do for the AUDIENCE. They fulfill their needs or answer the questions they are asking. In her book Noonan lists four jobs:

  1. Honor the lost.
  2. Reassure America that this tragedy, while terrible, will not halt our efforts in space.
  3. Tell the world the same.
  4. Talk to children about the meaning of the tragedy, and put it into a context they will understand.

See the difference?

Very often people make the mistake of focusing on the goal alone. Don’t get me wrong, defining your key strategic goal is exactly the right place to start. This takes effort and it feels good to get it done. With this sorted out it’s easy to move on and forget to ask what the audience needs from you.

Imagine what the Challenger speech would have looked like if Noonan hadn’t thought about its job. A soulless load of tragically political doubletalk would be my guess. Instead, we got greatness.

Next time you kick off a high-stakes project, think hard about your goals and write them down. Then put the same effort into clearly articulating what your job is. If you can put yourself in the audiences’ shoes it’s not hard to do, and it’s rare that they present the same degree of difficulty as the Challenge address.

Audiences think about things like:

  • Who is this person?
  • How much will this cost?
  • Where do I buy?
  • What  decision am I being asked to make?

Few things will have the impact of Reagan’s Challenger address, and it’s obvious that I’m in awe of what Noonan pulled off. Thinking about goals and jobs up front has been incredibly helpful to me, especially when all hell is breaking loose. I encourage you to add this to your bag of tricks.


team Zum