The occasion did not afford many of the customary elements that require decoding of a traditional persuasive political speech. He has job security. Additionally, the environment and the expectations of a State of the Union address are unique. It is akin to a political pep rally to which both sides are invited—but only one side is ever going to cheer. Thus, I will forego my normal grading rubric and focus on “decoding” some of the more advanced elements this speech.
You have to have a sense of humor when you watch any political speech. They clapped for President Obama five times in the first two minutes! This is the speaker’s equivalent of cycling with training wheels. Everyone laughs at all your jokes (knowing you aren’t really that funny), and they roar in applause every time you pause (knowing you aren’t really that profound). Speechwriters plan for this. They rely on it to make their candidate appear to be more well-supported than they are. In rehearsal, they teach politicians how to put a dramatic emphasis on the last sentence of every paragraph to queue the audience to cheer.
Unfortunately, this does not work in the real world. Well, not as easily. Your audience won’t clap just because you paused. They will look at you with a blank stare and wait for you to finish your point. I call this technique “engine revving” because its extreme up-then-down cadence sounds like a car warming up on a winter morning. “Revving” works best in festive occasions with large crowds. Audiences naturally fill the uncomfortable gap of silence with applause. But make sure you only utilize it at your peak moments. By doing so, you will “train” your audience to respond emphatically every time you make a dramatic point.
A very powerful technique that is oft underutilized outside of politics is the use of Impact Statements, reminding the audience of the victories that have been won since the last speech. As many of his predecessors have done, President Obama opened up with a litany of accomplishments that his administration and the United States have achieved. According to the president, the war is ending, recession is ending, six million new jobs have opened, we are buying more American cars than we have in five years, less foreign oil in 20 years, the housing market and stock market are on the rise. Everything is great…just great. Um, yeah.
Beginning with Impact Statements sets a positive tone for a presentation, establishes a platform for the next round of goals, and most importantly, provides what Dr. Robert Cialdini calls, “social proof” that his promises and plans are coming to fruition. By focusing on a barrage of bi-partisan highlights, the speaker diverts the audience’s attention momentarily from any shortcomings or hotly contested issues. Impact Statements create rally points under which the entire congregation can celebrate how far they have come.
You should do this. Prior to the section in which you offer your suggestions (especially if they are going to create extra work or challenges for some of your audience), begin by submitting a deluge of “look at how far we’ve come” facts, statistics, and stories. Before you can make them work harder, remind them how much what they have already been doing has worked.
I have to be honest. There were several times in the 60 minute speech in which I looked up and said, “Hey, how did we get to this topic?” President Obama seamlessly weaved between one subject and the next, barely pausing to take a break. Once he got going, check out the wide array of subject matters he addressed in the first 30 minutes alone:
This is another occasion in which, for a 60-minute “informational” address on Capitol Hill, you can get away with doing a Megamix of topics. However, in the type of talk that you and I would give, the audience would revolt. A normal presentation should be broken down into chunks that are easy to remember (and repeat to others). Begin each section with a headline and close each section with a Power Phrase.
The framework I recommend to my clients is AIDEA:
Time doesn’t permit me to break this down further here. I have videos and articles that should help you.
BONUS: GOP REACTION: Much ado has been made about Senator Marco Rubio’s speech in response to the SOTU address. Some called it sophomoric, pedestrian, and overly-nervous. And those were just the Republicans’ opinions! Just kidding.
The highlight (or low-light) was Senator Rubio literally stopping his speech on national television to take a sip of water. Needle scratch…
I blame Rubio’s handlers for this. They should have had him better prepared. In this instance, better hydrated. Humans lose water every time we breathe; a little when through our nose, even more when through our mouth. A high-stakes presentation plus nervousness nearly guarantees some level of dehydration.
Begin hydrating two hours prior to your talk, not immediately prior to it. Your nerves will cause the water to run through you otherwise. Hydrate while you are calm so your body can distribute the water to the places that need it most.
Minutes before your talk, swish water in your mouth to moisten your tongue and mouth.
If you ever need water during your talk, pour it in a glass and sit it next to you. Glass is clear, so it won’t be as obtrusive. In addition, drinking out of a glass is far more elegant than a bottle of water (although Rubio is now selling branded water bottles for donations of $25 and above).
That’s your decoding. Remember, points are powerful but Connection is Key!