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!

“You Are Not Special” Speech: Rethinking Youth Culture

Is giving every kid a trophy really what’s best for them?

Wellesley High English teacher David McCullough, Jr. made headlines recently with commencement remarks that told graduates, “You are not special.” The point he was making relates to the way youth are, in his words, “pampered, cosseted, doted upon” while growing up.

Youth softball and soccer leagues that don’t even keep the score give trophies to all the kids. Does that make sense? What, exactly, are the trophies for? Showing up? Well, no one takes attendance either. We live in a culture that often is obsessed with telling every kid how great they are regardless of performance for fear of hurting their feelings. But I don’t think that creates self esteem. Doesn’t self esteem comes from resiliency — failing first at things, learning from our failures and finding the resolve to come back and succeed? That is the kind of achievement that builds confidence and fortitude.

Every parent feels their child is special, a gift from God to be cherished. Or at least they should. And each child has a special light within to be celebrated. But that is something different from “pretending” all performances are the same. They are not and that lesson that will be tougher to learn when they are ultimately faced with the “real world.”

There is the other extreme, of course. Overbearing parents demanding their eight-year-old deliver on the ball field. Fun and improvement should be complimentary goals, not opposing ones.

I think the best way to produce excellence is to acknowledge it when it really occurs. The pursuit of excellence is the path to fulfilling our full potential. McCullough was right to ask that our youth resist the “narcotic paralysis of self-satisfaction.” Their futures, and ours, may depend on it.

The writer is an adjunct college professor who runs a communications company and has a young daughter active in youth sports.