What We Can Learn from President Obama: Public Speaking and The State of the Union

Official photographic portrait of US President...
Official photographic portrait of US President Barack Obama (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

With the elections coming up, there’s a lot of focus on the speaking styles of the presidential candidates.  Earlier in the year, I analyzed the President’s State of the Union Speech from a presentation perspective.

(Need a reminder?  Check out the speech on YouTube.)

No matter your political persuasion, the State of the Union address was a study in great public speaking.  Not only did the president have a commanding presence.  He captivated as he delivered his vision for America with a sense of energy, enthusiasm, and excitement. In fact, when asked to rate his speech, I gave it a 90 out of 100

Below, I’ve listed some attributes of his State of the Union speech, from which we can all learn.  But what about that remaining 10 points out of a perfect score of 100?  Not even the president is perfect, so I’ve also listed a couple of cons.  See below for my pro and con observations.

The Good

Delivery

President Obama acknowledged all sides of the room, alternately facing center and then to one or the other side of the room.

His voice was expressive, as he used a palette of tone, color, dynamics (loud and soft), and rhythm in his delivery.

He paused after sentences so the audience could digest what he had to say.

He conveyed a sense of urgency, not only in his remarks, but in his voice, and stressed important words.

He sounded confident, decisive and authoritative.

The Speech itself

The president used easy-to-understand language that resonates with most people.

He backed up and illustrated his points with specific examples and anecdotal examples of real people benefitting from government programs.

Obama used catchy phrases, such as “We need to turn government from an unemployment system to re-employment system.

  • The speech employed  active verbs, talking about specific actions the president  is taking
  • The presentation itself was well crafted, and segued smoothly from one subject to the next

Cons:

  • Too long
    • Dwelt too long in a couple of places
    • Slightly repetitive

What does Opera have to do with Public Speaking?


Martina Arroyo
Martina Arroyo

I recently attended a master class  for young opera singers with famed singer Martina Arroyo, at Hunter College in New York City.  Ms. Arroyo constantly stressed the importance of knowing who the character is, the motive behind actions, where the action takes place, and more.  She also focused on  the importance of being  prepared and immersed in the moment before you  get up on stage.

What does this have to do with public speaking?  Just like a good performer, a public speaker needs to have stage presence.   Know the context of your presentation.  Think about your words, what you want to convey,  and how you want to move your audience.  Have a sense of yourself, who  you are and why you’re up on that stage, whether it’s an interview, a panel or PowerPoint presentation, or a speech to a large or small audience.

Our “Techniques for Effective Public Speaking”  can help you translate the qualities of a great performer into a great presentation of your own.  For more information contact us or visit www.publicspeaking4u.com.

Best and Worst Broadcasters

Commentators and TV hosts with good voices and delivery: Among women, Katie Couric, Diane Sawyer, Leslie Stahl, Cynthia McFadden, Oprah Winfrey, Tyra Banks, Sue Simmons in New York. Men: Tom Brokaw, Brian Williams, Larry King.

What do they have in common? Soothing, pleasant voices, a sense of authority, and good delivery.  They pronounce well, exude an air of relaxed confidence, credibility and experience.  Their voices are pitched at a level that is easy to listen to, they make their listeners feel comfortable, and their pace of delivery makes it easy for the audience to understand what they’re saying.

Contrast these examples of excellent delivery with the shrill and whiney broadcasters  we hear on some of the Cable, sports and financial TV channels.  High-pitched nasal voices with “rapid fire” deliveries who talk so fast they actually swallow their words, and make it hard for listeners to follow them.  I won’t name the stations, but if you channel surf, you’ll easily spot them.

Tell us who you think is the best and worst broadcaster. Take our quick survey.

Why doesn’t everyone like me?

Watching President Obama get grilled at a town hall meeting recently reminded me about audiences and the desire each of us has to be liked.  Just as with the president or any public figure for that matter, we all want our audiences to like us.

The problem is that listening is subjective.  Each person in your audience brings with them their own background and perspective. and in so doing, sees and hears with their own eyes and ears .   And for this reason, it’s hard to please everyone all of the time.

People can be quirky.  Perhaps someone doesn’t like the way your hair looks, or the way you’re dressed, or even your style.  Or one person hears something you say and another interprets it in another way.

Be confident in your content and your delivery, do the best job you can.  Then know that most everyone in your audience will respond positively.  And for those who don’t, it could be more about them than about you.

For more insights into speaking and communicating effectively, visit www.publicspeaking4u.com.

Saving your throat

At a recent performance of “A Little Night Music” on Broadway, one of the leads, Catherine Zeta-Jones, had to cancel due to a bad throat.    I found that interesting, as I’ve worked with actors and noticed – especially nowadays with Broadway performers being amplified – that many actors don’t support their voices.  Consequently, they may develop laryngitis or a raw throat and have to cancel a performance.

I often emphasize the importance of correct breathing as a key to vocal stamina and to help protect your voice and throat.  Here are other hints that will help  before a presentation.

  • Make sure you have plenty of rest.  Speaking, like acting, singing or dancing, is physical, and you need energy to support your voice.
  • Keep your throat moist and  “well oiled,” especially in air-conditioned rooms and in dry, winter air.   Avoid alcohol, and drink plenty of water.  Hard, sucking candies are also good.
  • Be sure you are breathing from your diaphragm or belly, thus supporting your voice.
  • At all costs, avoid yelling, which is very hard on your vocal cords.

Skiing and Public Speaking

Skiing
I recently returned from my last ski trip of the season, and realized that skiing and public speaking have a lot in common.

Since most of my friends don’t ski, I ski by myself and I tend to be a chicken.  I stick to the green, or easy slopes, unless I’m with an instructor who can coach me as I wend my way down an intermediate slope.

On my last trip I had been skiing for three consecutive days, lugging  my heavy ski boots in a backpack to the slopes, a bit of a walk at over 9,000 ft. elevation.  While I generally walk a lot, lately I haven’t been getting much exercise, other than a couple of other ski trips.

On the third day of my trip, I decided to ski more than usual.  I was getting a little stiff, but wanted to tackle a small, steeper hill that I had done in previous years.  I made a turn and leaned backward (a defensive stance that says “I’m afraid.”)  I wiped out – skier terminology for falling.  My confidence was badly shaken.

The following day, still reeling from my fall (which was a minor one at that) I went to another peak which required far more walking at a higher elevation.  I headed for the easy slope, which had a “Magic Carpet,” a conveyor belt designed to ease kids onto the ski lift.  Well, I nearly fell before I could get on the lift.  Arriving at the top of the lift, I felt fear and was stiff from overdoing the skiing the previous three days. I was falling into all my bad habits, I had a negative attitude, was not skiing well, and knew it was time to call it quits.  I was deeply disappointed in myself.

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Upon my return home, I realized that I had forgotten to take my own public speaking advice which could have helped me out.  So here are some hints that I learned from my ski trip:

• I do much better with an instructor or a coach who can guide me and give me confidence.  So too do many speakers.  A coach can help you be your best and give you confidence.

• I hadn’t prepared myself adequately for the amount of skiing I wanted to do.  Just like skiers, public speakers have to develop stamina and confidence through a regular practice routine.

• When I got tired, I reverted to old bad habits.  So too, it’s easy for speakers to go back to old habits that are comfortable, such as mumbling or speaking too fast out of nervousness.

• I let my fall spook me out instead of realizing that falling and making a mistake is part of the learning process.  Public speakers too make mistakes.  It’s part of being human, and you have to dust yourself off and go on undeterred.

• After my fall, my body was stiff and tense.  When you’re nervous everything closes up and your muscles tighten.  Had I taken a minute for some deep breaths, I would have relaxed my body and improved my mental attitude.  When speakers get nervous they often tighten up.  Deep breathing helps relax both muscles and mind.

Will I let this experience deter me from skiing next year?  No way!  I have almost a whole year to think more positively, to practice and prepare, to remember to take deep breaths when I ski, and to develop more confidence.

As a public speaker, it’s important to know that you too will make mistakes,.  Don’t focus on them.  Just dust yourself off, and go on.  Who knows how many heights you may conquer if you persevere!

Microphone Tips

It’s a mistake many people make when public speaking.  You’re part of a program or a panel.  You get up to speak and you can’t be heard, you’re too loud, the microphone, or mic, is too high or too low.

To avoid being “caught by the mic,” arrive early and try to check microphone levels before the audience arrives.  Then, try out the mic.  Is the mic adjustable?  Can you change the height and angle?  If so, you’re in luck.  If not, don’t worry.  You will just have to compensate a bit.

  • If the mic doesn’t adjust and you’re too tall, don’t stoop down to it.  Try lowering you chin slightly as if speaking into the mic.
  • If you’re short and the mic is too high, ask for a small platform that you can stand on.  If one isn’t available, just stand as tall as you comfortably can, lift your chin, and speak up to the mic.
  • Try out words with letters that “pop,” such as p, t and d.  If the mic distorts, and sound levels can’t be adjusted, try standing slightly away from the mic.
  • If you can’t be heard well, concentrate on talking to the back of the room to help you project better.

Whether you’re short, tall, a loud or soft speaker, always pronounce your words clearly and support your voice.  Our “Techniques for Effective Public Speaking” teaches you how to project and support your voice so that you always sound your best.