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Have All Presidents Been Inspiring Speakers? 4 Insights from Inaugural Addresses


Margaret Perlis wrote a great piece in Forbes entitled, “8 Public Speaking Lessons From 57 Inaugural Speeches: The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly.” After reading through every inaugural speech over the past 228 years (and finding that it was “like eating a head of raw broccoli … very substantive, but tough to get through.”), she was able to sum up a series of lessons for other public speakers.

Since many of you have the chance to give briefings – or prepare them for others – I thought I’d pluck a handful of her tips and offer a quick commentary of my own:

1. Keep it concise: I think it’s safe to say that 8,000 words is too long, as we learned from William Henry Harrison. “No one wants to hear a two-hour speech—especially in this day and age,” said Perlis. I’d suggest that few people want to hear anything longer than 10-15 minutes (think of your favorite podcasts). If you’re on the hook for an hour-long briefing or a half- or full-day training session, incorporate breaks or group interaction every 20 minutes. Adult learners’ brains don’t like to listen any longer than that and tune out without periodic pauses.

2. Keep it real: In his 1857 inaugural address, President Buchanan minimized the realities of slavery and states threatening secession. Using words like “agitation” and “diverted” didn’t cast much of a vision for our nation. Great speeches and presentations don’t pretend that the prevailing challenges or issues will go away. When they do, listeners squirm awkwardly and it creates cultural shifts in an organization, setting the tone for dishonesty and distrust. Don’t ignore the elephants in the room just because it’s politically expedient or potentially disruptive.

3. “We” not “I.” I like this one (or should I say “we?”). How often have you heard a speaker talk incessantly about what he or she has done or plans to do? It turns out that President Teddy Roosevelt refused to use the first person singular and went with “we” instead. In the process, he “brought the American people into his huddle and empowered us as team members … to work with him and each other and take responsibility for the greater good of the country.” How can you draw in the listener to join you in a common cause? It often involves doing homework to know who will be in the room or around the table, and highlighting what’s most important to them…to “us.”

4. Be quotable. “Ask not what your country can do for you – ask what you can do for your country” and “Government is not the solution to our problem; it is the problem” are inaugural addresses that led many to join public service and then called into question that service just two decades later. Regardless of how you feel about the presidents who uttered those words in their inaugural addresses, they are compelling ideas that were seared in our society’s collective memory. In addition to coming up with memorable lines that linger with listeners, I’d also add that any public speech needs to be not just quotable, but “tweetable.” Think intentionally about the ways your audience might cull it down into 140-character chunks.

What public speaking tips have you picked up from presidential speeches over the years?

How can you incorporate these ideas into your own briefings?

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Profile Photo Nick Wright

An analysis of the word choice by the StyleWriter editing software isolates the words and expressions President Obama uses to bring his Inauguration speech alive. The program measures Pep – characteristics of the message that add interest and a conversational style.

For example, the program isolates 2.7 percent of the words in the President’s speech as adding interest. These are mainly specific, picturable nouns and action verbs.

They were:

betray, bleakest, bless, brink, cherished, creed, crippling, flames, footprints, founding, lash, mob, naive, never ending, patriots, pioneers, pledge, preacher, precious, raging, revamp, sap, seared, seize, shrinking, slave, snow capped, solemn, steeled, striving, surest, sword, sworn, tempered, treasure, twilight, waterways

The speech also contained many proper nouns, including:

America, American, Americans, America’s, Africa, Americas, Appalachia, Asia, Biden, Capitol, Congress, Detroit, Earth, Medicaid, Medicare, Middle East, Newtown, Philadelphia, Selma, Seneca, and Stonewall.

The speech was full of conversational style. Several short sentences such as help to give the speech a conversational style.

  • And economic recovery has begun.
  • God bless you.
  • They strengthen us.
  • We must claim its promise.
  • We must lead it.

The speech uses one contracted form (they’ve) and several phrasal verbs (act on, agree on, carry on, signs up, swept away) to add to this conversational style.

Finally, the speech liberally uses pronouns (we = 60, us = 21, they = 9, you = 8, I = 4, she = 4, he = 1, her = 1, his = 1).

The president’s word choice is easy on the ear. The StyleWriter software graded 89 percent of words as easy and another 5 percent as relatively easy. Only 5 percent of words detracted for easy reading.

What about criticisms of the President’s speech? The main habit was that he has a wordy style and an average sentence length that’s creeping up towards 20 words and there are a few too many passive verbs.

Original:

For we remember the lessons of our past, when twilight years were spent in poverty and parents of a child with a disability had nowhere to turn.

Redraft:

We remember the lessons, when in the twilight years of poverty parents of a disabled child had nowhere to turn.

Original:

We must act knowing that today’s victories will be only partial, and that it will be up to those who stand here in four years and 40 years and 400 years hence to advance the timeless spirit once conferred to us in a spare Philadelphia hall.

Redraft:

We know today’s victories will be only partial. Others standing here in four years, in 40 years and in 400 years must advance the timeless spirit once conferred to us in a spare Philadelphia hall.

Now I’m sure the Whitehouse would defend the President’s speech as being part of his rhetorical effect when speaking. What do others think?

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Jeffrey J Kontur

Not that my opinion counts for much but I approve your “today’s victories” redraft. I think your “twilight years” redraft is inferior to the original.

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Megan

Wasn’t that awesome??? According to White House aides, Obama wanted to emphasize equality and opportunity in his second inaugural speech. “It was deeply emotional and personal,” one aide said. “America’s possibilities are limitless, for we possess all the qualities that this world without boundaries demands: youth and drive; diversity and openness; an endless capacity for risk and a gift for reinvention,” Obama said. “My fellow Americans, we are made for this moment, and we will seize it — so long as we seize it together.” It essentially mirrored everything I’ve documented and posted in my personal blog. I would like to think that his aides have seen it.

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