sotu_slide_speaking[1]Disclaimer: This has nothing to do with policies and partisan beliefs.  If you’re looking for someone complaining about tax reform or social policies, you’re in the wrong place. I am commenting as a speech coach.  What can the common man without a few hundred million people watching our speeches learn from the speaking techniques?

First, the good.

  • Obama has clearly improved his speaking voice.  His pace, especially early (he resorted to old habits later), was measured and purposeful. He made emphasis with his rate.
  • He chose to embrace humor — I counted at least 6 chuckles from his audience.  In a ~60 minute speech that many would not listen to, this was a nice technique to break it up.  Most of them were early, though.  He smiled well when it occurred — very connective.
  • He used stories.  Especially nice job with “That’s our story” — applying a specific story to the audience.  The more concrete (Friday night pizza) the better.
  • He made clear summary statements like “The shadow of crisis has passed and the SOTU is strong” and “That’s good news!” and the “verdict is clear” (side note if you’re an executive or team leader — THAT’s what your peeps want to hear.  “Good year and bonuses for everyone!”)
  • Great rhetoric using questions with the negative first: “Will we … or will we… ” (and everyone can agree on the latter!)

If Obama hired me…

  • The gestures lacked purpose.  There was “the Clinton” the rhythmic clasp .  His left arm stays in rhythm.  He had a couple of GREAT opportunities: Close the book… Turn the page…  Big numbers.
  • He didn’t use stories enough.  There were way too many nebulous things.
  • He used non-words (from a read speech). Now… Well… So….
  • He has got to learn to stop when the applause gets loud.  Several key phrases and major points got lost in the applause.  He (and his speechwriter) have GOT to know what people will be excited to hear and reverse or allow for a pause when appropriate.
  • Too long.
  • And strayed from the core message.  The average listener would be hard-pressed to repeat the core message(s).  When he was talking about the economy (“it starts with the economy”), he ended up throwing in health care and education and bipartisan bills.  All part of his message, but not where it made sense.
  • Don’t get into the snippy fight “I know because I won both of them…”  Take the high road.  But you didn’t have to open the door with a statement you could have predicted would cause problems.
  • “God bless this country…” — stick to the script: “God bless America” (they wrote a song)
  • Use the inclusive (we) vs. the divisive (I).  I’ll be taking action, my budget, my plan, my veto.
  • Use the SAME phrases.  I heard middle class economy, 21st century economy, hard-working Americans.  I think these were the same groups, but I need to have something to repeat as a listener.  Use repeated phrases.
  • Avoid the phrase “And now the truth is…” (One of our What Not to Say phrases)
  • There weren’t many roadmaps.  I had a hard time trying to say where we were in the speech.  I go no advance tips on what to listen for.  Therefore, everything stands alone and it’s hard to bring home the main message.
  • He had a mix on dogmatic statements.  Like JFK, he used “I believe…” several times (good), but then stated “no challenge poses a bigger threat” and “we should” and “we must” a bunch as well.  Nothing drives your opponents away more than such statements. Find common ground and own it as YOUR belief.

A couple of other thoughts:

  • Does anyone have a tougher job than John Boehner?  He has to act interested, doesn’t like most of what he hears, and has his face on the screen at every turn.  But you HAVE to stand when the issue is an indisputable one (like honoring the military or women getting an equal shake).
  • The rest of us don’t give political speeches.  We can’t get away with the comparative statements like freer and more and faster and better and stronger.  We have to explain what we mean by “fair share”.  They can’t be measured and employees and clients demand a concrete description. Get away from the nebulous when speaking to people who will (or must) respond.  If I advertised my rates and the benefits of my services with such statements, I wouldn’t have a business.
  • Numbers are hard.  I heard 95%, 43 million, $15,000, 1999, $750, $3 million.  Are they big or small?  At a minimum, we need to know that single fact.  And what do they mean to me (the listener)?

Hard to imagine any way to “win” the SOTU, so perhaps the best thing is that the talking heads don’t have anything glaring to poke at. Sometimes the best way to win is not to lose.

Study others to better yourself

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