When You're Not Winning

Updated: Jul 22

There’s been a lot of talk about concession speeches lately: Will he or won’t he? When would it happen and what would be said? Things bring to mind a poignant look back at some of the famous concession speeches in our nation’s history.

Too many times we’ve seen presidential candidates caught by surprise, with no concession speech prepared (think Mitt Romney in 2012, Hillary Clinton in 2016 as well as our current election cycle.) Fortunately, all major presidential candidates have professional communication experts to navigate both the smooth sailing and the rocky waters.

However, not all executives have that benefit. And every leader has to discuss disappointing news at some point in their career—a closure, layoffs, a tragic event, a goal not met. When this happens, leaders are called to address their audience in a way that provides clarity, preserves dignity, maintains morale, motivates and gives hope.

Here are the elements of a strong political concession speech, which also apply to challenging times in business.

  • State the facts and acknowledge reality. Clearly describe the circumstances as best you can, what they mean, and how to move forward. Leave no room for unnecessary doubt. More uncertainty equals more stress. Few presidential candidates have had as long a wait or as challenging a time discovering the outcome as Al Gore in 2000. By the time he made his concession speech on December 13, more than a month after the election, he resolved to put a drawn-out court battle behind him, accept the outcome and help the country do the same.

  • Acknowledge the disappointment. If you’ve worked with me before, you may recall me rattling on about creating mindshare with your listeners. The moment people really know in their bones that you understand them, there is trust and rapport—not one moment before or after. In her 2016 concession speech, Hillary Clinton carried the extra burden of consoling not only her political supporters but young girls around the country who saw their hopes of having the first female US wither away before their eyes. She made a valiant effort—first acknowledging the pain, but then resolutely weaving inspiration and reassurance throughout the entire speech.

  • Express appreciation for all the effort. In a political concession speech appreciation includes the candidate’s supporters as well as the opponent and his/her supporters. There are many people who have undoubtedly given much of their mind, body, and soul to the endeavor at hand. As a leader, no matter how disappointed you and your team are, remember that people need to know their efforts will not be forgotten. In politics, this is part of the healing process. In business, it is also part of talent retention and protecting morale. To the wild cheers of his audience, President George H.W. Bush gave a concession speech in 1982. The speech lasted 5 minutes, and over 3 minutes were spent expressing his thanks to everyone who helped him and even some who didn't.

  • Pledge support where it is needed. In politics, it is traditional to pledge support to the winner in the spirit of patriotism and bringing the country together. In business, leaders need to prove that they will be there for their teams through thick and thin, in whatever ways are needed. President Jimmy Carter did this with determination when he conceded the election to Ronald Reagan in 1980. Describing his concession phone call to President-Elect Reagan, he said, “We’ll have a very fine transition period. I told him I wanted the best one in history.”

  • Convey optimism. These are value-driven statements: Talk about your hope and belief in your people and your organization, and why your team can and must look towards a brighter future. John McCain’s concession speech to Barack Obama in 2008 is considered a gold standard—not only for the humility he displayed but also for the tangible love of country and optimism for our future.

“Tonight—tonight, more than any night, I hold in my heart nothing but love for this country and for all its citizens, whether they supported me or Sen. Obama, I wish Godspeed to the man who was my former opponent and will be my president. And I call on all Americans, as I have often in this campaign, to not despair of our present difficulties but to believe always in the promise and greatness of America, because nothing is inevitable here. Americans never quit. We never surrender. We never hide from history. We make history. Thank you, and God bless you, and God bless America.”

~Senator John McCain, Nov 5, 2008

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