Do Billionaires Need to Learn How to Speak in Public?

The face of the franchise

Stephen Ross, the billionaire owner of the Miami Dolphins, proved yesterday that you can be successful without being a good speaker, but also that it’s not a good idea.

Ross delivered a statement honoring retiring Dolphin Jason Taylor yesterday before the start of the game against the Jets. After fifteen spectacular years in the league, Taylor was playing in his last game, and fans were asked to be in their seats early to witness the tribute.

The “tribute” was underwhelming at best in both content and delivery. The words seem to have been put together from some prepackaged corporate template, as if all some anonymous staffer had to do was consult a checklist, fill in a few blanks, and remind Ross how to pronounce his name.

If you’re going to tell someone you appreciate them and will miss them, make it personal. Tell them specifically what you appreciate about them; don’t say something like, “you were an integral part of this organization.” (I don’t remember the exact words—and that’s the point.) Instead, tell a story about something that person did, that exemplifies a special quality they had. Or talk about what would have been different if that person had not been there.

Don’t say, “You will be missed.” Besides sounding like the most overused cliché at a funeral, it’s about as passive and impersonal as can be. Say something like, “Next year, when our defense is backed up to the goal line in a tight game, every one of us in this statdium will look for old number 99—that’s when we will all miss you.”

The only thing worse than the wording was the delivery. Ethos is the special quality of a speaker that adds or detracts from the power of the message. Ross owns the team, so he has the right to speak, but based on the jeers that followed his introduction, maybe someone more respected should have spoken. The perfect candidate would have been Zach Thomas, Taylor’s long-time teammate and brother-in-law. And if you’re going to speak from the heart, don’t read from notes. If it’s important enough to say, it’s worth a few minutes of your valuable time to rehearse and remember.

Does any of this matter? It absolutely does. Let’s look at it from a strict dollars and cents point of view. A sports team derives its value from the loyalty of its fans, those like myself who have bought season tickets for almost thirty years, and who tune in to watch the games even when the team is hopelessly inept. That loyalty is heavily driven by attachment to specific individuals who represent the organization. For the Dolphins, those individuals included Don Shula, Larry Csonka, and Dan Marino. At this moment, there is nobody associated with the team who comes anywhere close to that stature. In today’s era of interchangeable players and rotating coaching staffs, the owner may be the only enduring face of the franchise.

It would help if he could learn to speak in public.

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