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).
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.
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.
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