Whenever you watch a high-profile speech, you can learn things about your own public speaking. I think Barack Obama’s 2011 State of the Union Address (SOTU) demonstrates five elements of strong public speaking. Regardless of your feelings about the content of the speech, here are a few things to keep in mind.
1. Stay true to your style.
We have enough public speakers in the world who are trying to sound perfect. Vanilla, over-rehearsed speeches that are more a mechanical delivery of words instead of an invitation to understanding are everywhere. Mr. Obama has several speech tics, including his inability to pronounce the word “to” in any speech. He consistently says a shortened “ta” instead of the complete pronunciation of “to.” Like an accent, these tics make his presentations unique to him. As well, the President has distinctive hand-gestures that he uses consistently in every presentation. These idiosyncrasies are unique to his style and bring a familiarity to each of his presentations.
When you watch video recordings of your own speech and presentations, look for your own subtle and unique traits. Consulting with your speaking coach, decide which traits bring unique flavor to your speeches without being distracting. For example, Mr. Obama has a distracting tendency to drop his hands to the podium, resulting in a loud “thud.” Keep your positive traits and abandon the distractions.
2. Bring the big ideas down to the local level.
Typical of most SOTU presentations, the President gives concrete examples of the concepts he is speaking about. Using examples of ordinary citizens, from solar-panel companies to school principals who have schools with improved graduation rates, he gives his audience examples and anecdotes that become a “hook” for the listeners’ memories.
When you speak, are you using simple, audience-relating anecdotes that help your audience to understand how your concepts apply to real life? They say that all politics are local. The focus of your presentations should also be local and relevant to your audience.
3. Use the ideas of others in your talk.
In his SOTU presentation, Mr. Obama used several quotes. In his quote attributed to Robert Kennedy, he united his content to foundational ideas from the past. While this can be risky, it is always a good idea to try to bring in the thoughts of others into your presentations.
You can use quotes that both support and challenge your themes. With the Internet, it is easy to find quotes for your presentation. Whenever possible, try to find at least two different sources for your quotes before you attribute it to any author.
4. Acknowledge tough or contentious issues with simple humor.
In a presentation like the SOTU, there are plenty of people in the audience looking for any chance to pounce on the speaker. By making brief, quick humorous content on such things as acknowledging disagreements on healthcare, the TSA security procedures and government redundancy, Mr. Obama briefly diffused some of this antagonism to allow his presentation to be heard. Has salmon ever been discussed in a State of the Union event before?
When you have audience members that have plenty of agendas of their own, it is okay to make fast humorous comments to break the ice. The key to this type of humor is keeping it short and light while immediately moving on in your presentation.
5. Conclude with a strong story that summarizes your essential points.
In the President’s attempt to drive home his idea that “we do big things” in the United States, he used a very strong story of how one U.S. company created the equipment that performed the work to impact the world. His story of the U.S. involvement in the Chilean miners’ rescue demonstrated the existence of one such “big thing.”
In your presentations, use powerful stories to both introduce and end your presentation, leaving your audience with strong visual images to remember your core ideas.
How can you apply these five techniques to your future presentations? The next time you watch a presentation, think about the techniques the speaker is using. Adapt those things that work for you.
Sean Buvala is an author, professional storyteller and business communication coach. For 25 years, he has taught people how to communicate with memorable clarity. You can learn more about his work at http://www.seantells.com. Get his training workbook at http://www.storytelling101.com . He is based in Arizona.
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