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Speech-Crafting Lessons from the White House

Thursday, December 17th, 2009 by Chris Kent

Regardless of where you fall on the political spectrum, it’s hard to deny that President Obama has brought powerful speech-giving back to the White House. Much of the credit goes to Obama himself. The award-winning author is heavily involved in the drafting of his speeches—and packs a punch with his delivery. It is also clear his speechwriting team has a great appreciation for language.

In the past two weeks, Obama’s speeches on sending additional troops to Afghanistan and upon accepting his Nobel Peace Prize have showcased the president as communicator-in-chief. Granted, Obama (like Bill Clinton and Ronald Reagan) brings life to his speeches with his own charisma—something innate, and impossible to learn. However, there are still lessons to be gleaned from the president’s speechmaking that can be applied to your own executive communication efforts.

Quote the quotable: People still talk about Reagan’s elegant 1986 speech after the space shuttle Challenger disaster, in which he said the doomed astronauts had “slipped the surly bonds of earth” to “touch the face of God.” (Full credit to Reagan speechwriter Peggy Noonan, who used the John Gillespie Magee poem in the speech.)

When brilliant minds craft beautiful words of wisdom that fit perfectly into your speech, why not borrow them, instead of driving yourself crazy trying to one-up them? Obama and his speechwriters know this tactic well. In Obama’s speech accepting the Nobel Peace Prize, the president quoted Martin Luther King  Jr. on the need to remain hopeful about the human condition: “I refuse to accept the idea that the ‘isness’ of man’s present condition makes him morally incapable of reaching up for the eternal ‘oughtness’ that forever confronts him.” (Just reading those words gives me chills.)

Use such quotes sparingly in executive speeches for maximum impact—too many and your audience will wonder how many reference books the speaker plundered, and why the heck he can’t write something uniquely memorable.

Use compact and powerful language: Martin Luther King Jr. could talk about “isness” and “oughtness” because he was a lyrical and soaring communicator. The rest of us aren’t so talented. If you stuff an executive speech with complex language, lengthy sentences and twisted turns of phrase, the message will likely get lost in a sea of words.

It is far better to use short, declarative language—especially in the closing, when you want listeners to remember a few key points. From Obama’s West Point speech: “America, we are passing through a time of great trial. And the message that we send in the midst of these storms must be clear: that our cause is just, our resolve unwavering.” No mistaking the message here.

Know the audience: Speeches often fail because they are poorly focused—that is, the audience never gets the sense the speaker has any idea who they are.  However, Obama and his writers have an acute sense of the occasion. The president’s speeches are (usually) perfectly calibrated for key listeners.

Obama’s speech at West Point about sending more troops to Afghanistan was aimed squarely at those whose sons and daughters in the military will bear the brunt of this decision: “I have travelled to Dover to meet the flag-draped caskets of 18 Americans returning home to their final resting place. I see firsthand the terrible wages of war. If I did not think that the security of the United States and the safety of the American people were at stake in Afghanistan, I would gladly order every single one of our troops home tomorrow.”

The speech acknowledged the price paid by ordinary Americans, while plainly asking for their support. Executive speeches must do a similar job of acknowledging the “paint points” or needs of listeners, especially when asking the audience to make a sacrifice.

Get personal: When a speaker reveals something personal about himself, he is giving the audience a window into his soul and emotional life—trying to connect as a person, not a figurehead. The opposite approach is to address an audience as if from a lofty perch, which pretty much guarantees the speaker will fail to connect with listeners.

You can help your speaker make the connection with personal anecdotes, or simply by appealing to the heart. When then-candidate Obama delivered his famous March 2008 speech on race to a Philadelphia audience, he spoke about his white grandmother’s racial bias: “… a woman who loves me as much as she loves anything in this world, but a woman who once confessed her fear of black men who passed by her on the street, and who on more than one occasion has uttered racial or ethnic stereotypes that made me cringe. These people are a part of me. And they are a part of America, this country that I love.”

Whether or not Obama’s speeches resonate with you, the way his messages are skillfully and emotionally delivered is easy to admire. Your own executive speeches need to connect and persuade an audience in similar fashion.

is a member of the Content Bureau editorial team.

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