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?