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Lessons for Every Gov Communicator in Obama’s State of the Union

By Ev Chasen Jan 26 2011, 12:01 AM

The State of the Union address is a speech like no other. Every word is scrutinized for hidden meanings; every gesture and inflection analyzed for authenticity; every fact checked for accuracy by hundreds of reporters hoping to score “gotcha” points.

Getting a proposal or a project discussed — even in just a few words — can make or break a Cabinet agency. When I was a Cabinet-level speechwriter, we were always given the opportunity by “the White House” to suggest two or three sentences for the address. Although those two or three sentences were pored over and edited by dozens of senior leaders, the text we submitted was never used. We considered it a great victory when one of our ideas was even mentioned.

In the end, although it may be different from other speeches, the State of the Union address is still a speech, not a document for the ages. It is not delivered as a YouTube video (as Sarah Palin did in her comments on the shootings in Tucson), or presented as a podcast, or read by the Clerk of the House as a message from the Chief Executive (as State of the Union messages were delivered before 1913.) And because it is a speech, designed to convince others, the way a President looks and sounds is just as important — perhaps even more important — than the words he actually speaks.

The 2011 State of the Union was delivered, of course, by President Barack Obama, a master of speech delivery. The President’s tone was masterful, his gestures emphatic, his inflections perfect. (For a critique of the content of the President’s speech, try virtually every other web site on the Internet.) Although few other government employees will ever have the opportunity to give — or even help prepare — a State of the Union address, many, perhaps most, federal employees will have to give an important speech at some time during their careers. Is there anything a prospective speech-giver can learn from last night’s event?

Oratory, Obama style

Actually, there’s a great deal that can be learned. The President, for example, did not begin his talk by talking about how glad he was to be in the House of Representatives, or how nice it was to see so many old friends gathered in one place, or (not that any President would ever do this) begin by telling a joke to “break the ice.” Instead, after a brief sentence congratulating the new members of the House and the new Speaker, he jumped right in by calling attention to the empty chair in the room, reserved for Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords.

He used the empty chair to make a larger point: that we can (and we must, as the President said) work together on behalf of our nation. Immediately, he had the attention of his listeners, both in the House chamber and throughout America. Compelling beginnings are the key to any successful speech: there is a general consensus among communication professors and public speaking consultants that an audience makes important first impression judgments about a speaker in about seven seconds.


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