Speech Tips for Obama and Rubio

A great speech tells a story by painting a picture with a clear, consistent message. Could you summarize President Obama’s State-of-the-Union address in a single line? I doubt it. It was a checklist not a story and had inconsistencies that muddled his clarity.

While he called for “smarter government” instead of bigger government, he also called for more pre-school education, repairing 70,000 bridges, creating new institutes for manufacturing and other ideas that require government involvement.

His plea to be “partners not rivals” with Republicans, also included an attack that we can’t drift “from one manufactured crisis to the next,” a condescending shot at Republican policy on the debt limit.

The checklist approach to these addresses is not new. Its designed to curry favor with specific constituencies and often the president gets a temporary bump in polls right after them. But the communication world is changing fast. Attention becomes more of a commodity every day. Presidents continue to waste this precious resource — the attention of 45 million people for an hour — with the same old, same old.

The president’s second term communication plan should be less about what he wants to do and more about how he will get it done. He should have painted a picture that looks something like this: “You re-elected me and a Republican majority in the House. That’s gridlock. I get it. Here’s what I plan to do to fix that problem.”

President Obama is a bright, articulate man with lots of charm and a conversational speaking style. He does have a truncated cadence and a certain detachment often creeps into his speeches. But his biggest improvement opportunity, however, rests with clarity (or the lack of it).

About Rubio:

Florida Senator Marco Rubio, who gave the Republican response, is a rising star. His humble Cuban roots are a GOP political consultant’s dream. He’s smart, articulate, passionate with a strong conservative record. While many top Republicans are floundering, he got in the President’s face with a “no apologies” defense of Republican principles. But he had nothing about fixing the gridlock either. And his awkward water break (click below) demonstrated he needs a lot more seasoning.

Water Break

It’s hard to believe no one thought about having a glass of water well within reach. Nervousness can give you cotton mouth in a hurry and Rubio had plenty to be nervous about. This was the most important speech of his life. But lessening speech anxiety is about the right kind of preparation. His “deer in the headlights” look when reaching for the water broke the rhythm of the speech, affecting a presentation that had some giddy up to it.

Just last year, Rubio suddenly discovered he had no last page while reading a speech. There’s no excuse for inadequate speech preparation, especially for a presidential aspirant.

Focus on delivering value to the audience. Be better prepared. Maybe we did learn something from last night’s speeches after all.

The writer is a speaking coach and former elected official who has made hundreds of presentations and media appearances. 

Contact markgrimm if looking for help!

No Last Page for Rubio! How to Handle a Speech Crisis

What if you get to the last page of your speech and it isn’t there? Public speakers should always have a disaster preparedness plan. This misfortune happened to potential Vice Presidential pick, Florida Senator Marco Rubio. Have a look:

The first advice, of course, is to be better prepared. Make sure you have all your pages. Secondly, have an idea in your mind what you would do if this should occur. Engage in what I call “mind practice.”

Mistakes will happen when speaking. It’s not a matter of if, it’s a matter of when. Never begin a speech without a handy one-page outline in front of you that you can refer to if you lose your place or your train of thought….or (in this case) the speech itself.

People will often judge you more on how you handle the mistake than the mistake itself. In this case, Rubio reacted pretty well initially. His smile was critical. It put people at ease because the audience gets tense when the speaker freezes up. It’s awkward for them and the speaker. Fortunately, an aide had the page. What would he have done without it? Rubio was strapped to the text, reading it word for word. That’s a practice I do not recommend. People can read on their own. They don’t need to be read to.

What was odd was how Rubio just went back to reading the last page after the incident. He seemed like a robot returning to his text. It really highlighted how artificial prepared text can be.

The incident is another re-enforcement of one of my fundamental teaching lessons in speaking — be as natural as possible. A good speech is a conversational engagement with the audience. It’s not a lecture.

Some short video clips on speaking at Grimm Academy may be helpful to you, as well as my speaking book.

The Rubio adventure does raise political questions given the Republicans have criticized Mr. Obama for being the “teleprompter president.” I’ll leave that one for the pundits.

In the meantime, count your pages!

The writer is a professional speaker and award-winning trainer.