Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Speaking of President Barack Obama

And everybody is these days, particularly this morning, on the heels of his 2011 State of the Union Address.

I haven't spent a lot of time picking apart political speeches, or presentations from TED, or even movie speeches. There are plenty of others that do, for one, and I don't have a lot of time to sit and pick speeches apart outside of my own clients, for another.

Today I'm making an exception. President Obama is in the middle of his term as the 'Leader of the Free World', and he has faced incredibly low approval rates in the last two years, even with the rise in his stats in the last few months. His position is tenuous at best, following the elections last fall, and the resultant loss of so many democratic voices on Capital Hill. His re-election seems highly in doubt, even with the risk of Sarah Palin being the next Republican candidate. (Oops, there's the third reason I don't do this much - I actually have political opinions that are tough to bury, even in non-partisan blog).

Last night was his moment to rebuild momentum, some would say for the United States as a whole, others would say for himself. Regardless, he spent an hour covering as much ground as possible in the most uplifting ways he could find in the midst of a hobbling economy that only shows small glimmers of recovery, but enough, apparently, for him to refer to the worst of the recession being over. (There I go again...)

Lest I stray too far into political discourse, lets look at some of the nuts and bolts of the speech last night:


He began by acknowledging the new Speaker of the House, followed by the absence of Representative 'Gabby' Giffords. By showing respect and honor to others, but through familiarity (using Gabby instead of Gabrielle), he took some of the tension away from himself, while doing the right thing at right time.

He quickly followed with a theme of our country being 'Our American Family', and tied it in to the dreams of a little girl in Tuscon, Arizona - touching on, but not bringing back wholly, the tragic loss of Christina Taylor-Green and 5 others in the shooting in early January.


The President painted several contrasting pictures in his speech. He compared what it was like to work in America 80 years ago with our job crisis now - and suggested we should not be discouraged, but challenged.

He compared our place as an educational leader in the 50's and 60's with our rapidly falling status today, and again issued a challenge. In two particularly powerful moments, he suggested that our teachers are not given their due, compared to South Korea, where teachers are identified as 'Nation Builders', and that our student are underappreciated - 'not just the winners of the Super Bowl be celebrated, but the winner of the Science Fair'.

He compared our desire to build a strong infrastructure, from roads to rail to internet, from its heyday in the mid-20th century to its much lower measure today, and again, issued a challenge. To illustrate the point, he compared Edison and the Wright Brothers to Google and Facebook.

He also made a switch, from comparing good to bad to bad to good, in his references to the Health Care policies he's helped put into place. While stating he's open to ideas, he simultaneously said he would not allow people to be told they would have to go back to the system as it was, comparing his new policies with those prior. This switch was no doubt designed to set him up as someone who is already taking on the challenges he has issued, and as the right leader in the future.

In what I would say was one his strongest moments, he discussed the United States' SPUTNIK moment - suggesting that today we are experiencing our own version of this challenge issued by the world. By comparing our past with our present, he laid down a gauntlet to today's Americans, though without, I would argue, the necessary drama President Kennedy had at his disposal.

In the final moments, he also contrasted our "contentious and frustrating and messy" democracy with the governments in the world that do what they want, regardless. His follow up "we wouldn't trade places with any other nation on Earth" brought strong, if obligatory, patriotic applause.

Personal Stories

Several times, be it a local roofing company, a small manufacturer who worked on drilling during the Chilean Mining rescue, or a mom going back to school, President Obama worked to make his speech personal. To give us example we could relate to, likely in an effort to show he is both in touch, and of the mind to bring our government back to a personal level. Did it work for you?

I found it, at best, forced, and he didn't seem emotionally connected to the stories, as much as impressed with himself for having them. Still, he found a way to tie them in at the end. Whether they were memorable enough for us to make the connection is questionable.


He's certainly mastered the Rule of Three. Here are just a few that stood out to me:

- shuttered windows, vacant storefronts, frustrations of Americans who've lost their jobs
- We need to out innovate, out-educate, and out-build the rest of the world
- 21st century government that's open and competent, lives within means, driven by new skills and ideas
- We've sent a message around the globe - we will not relent, we will not waver, and we will defeat you


The President had some major issues with humor in his speech, often times tripping his way through a humor line.

When discussing cutting off money to oil companies, which garnered large applause, he weakly tripped over a follow up line that oil companies are doing just fine on their own - a joke that landed with a thud.

He used strong self-deprecating humor in saying 'some of you still have concerns over the healthcare legislation', and used it to transition for a call for innovative ideas to improve healthcare.

He tripped on sarcasm when comparing cuts to innovation would be like 'lightening an airplane by taking off its engine' - it sounded like 'lightning', and failed to impact the audience.

He joked about high-speed rail not only being faster than a car but even a plane, without the pat-down. Ill-timed, I would think, with the bombing at Russia's busiest airport this week.

Only once did he get a strong laugh, with sarcastic reference to two government departments to handle freshwater salmon vs. saltwater salmon, followed with a Topper - "I hear it gets even more complicated when they're smoked", which drew a laughter on several levels, one might think. He milked it, perhaps because he seemed a bit tickled by his own success, and the laughter turned to applause. Despite the success, it isn't beyond belief to think the applause was a mechanism to save him from himself - either his self-congratulation on getting a laugh, or getting lost in his speech because of his surprise his humor finally worked.


In a 'State of the Union' address, one of the purposes is to cover as much ground as possible, so as not to offend any part of the country.

- The Economy
- Education
- Ecology
- Science and Innovation
- Manufacturing
- Infrastructure
- Big and Small Business
- Tax Cuts
- Religious tolerance
- Government Spending Increases
- Government Spending Cuts
- Legislation Earmarks
- Foreign Policy
- Military (and Gays in the Military)

This is what I can remember without going back to my notes - just the fact he made that many facets of our world memorable to me is a testament to the speech.

Persuasive Method

He kept a Silver Thread throughout - tying it all together, as mentioned in the Intro, by identifying our country as "Our American Family", personalizing it for all of us, evoking emotions of brotherhood, sibling rivalry, and an us against the world mentality.

He outlined problems, attempted to enable us to feel the pain of our failings, then proposed solutions, thus pressuring us and our elected leaders to back his plans for a future, which included goals as near as 2015 (presumably the end of his second term, if he gets one) and 2035 - making him a leader for today and the future.

He threaded together the personal stories he used throughout the speech, and his lauding of our educational system's open-mindedness, as examples of America being a country with big ideas that can do big things - leaving the statement "like we used to" unsaid but still felt throughout the room, and perhaps the worldwide audience.

This final bit of persuasion was the close of his speech, which followed his line about not trading places with another nation on earth. The strength of the latter line muted the energy and effectiveness of his ending, which appeared a bit sudden and truncated to this listener.

Overall Effect

I believe this speech will have some of the effect the President hoped for: it will rally his current supporters and temporarily quiet the concerns that he's already in lame duck status. Whether it will have the full effect he wants - creating new legislation and reinvigorating his suffering image after his first two years in office, is anyone's guess, and of course, everyone is guessing today.


If I were coaching our President, what would I suggest?

- less forced humor, and more preparation delivering it with commitment. Each time he attempted humor, he seemed remarkably uncomfortable, which comes from either a lack of prep, or a lack of belief in the humor itself.

- stronger vocal variety and facial expressions. President Obama got there on the strength of his passion, and he's become passionless as a speaker since taking office. He still has power in his voice, but the emotion seems to have been drained away by a more measured approach. The most passion I heard was when he discussed what he would not give up when it came to health care reform.

- listen to the audience. He seemed to read his speech without regard to audience response, which resulted in several anticlimactic moments. Once they have applauded you, move on, unless you can top your statement.

Finally, its interesting to note that the State of the Union address was initially known as the 'Presidents Annual Message to Congress', and in 1801 Thomas Jefferson chose to end the practice of giving it as a speech, instead giving the document to congress where it would be read aloud by a clerk. Jefferson found the speech to be reminiscent of the monarchy the U.S. escaped, and its 'Speech From the Throne'. Woodrow Wilson brought the practice of speaking back amidst some controversy, and Franklin D. Roosevelt introduced the term 'State of the Union' in his 1934 address. The last president to eschew a speech was Jimmy Carter, who passed on his last opportunity in 1981.

In today's broadcast-rich world, I doubt it will ever revert to Jefferson's ideals. We are a world moved by the emotions evoked by a speaker's emotions, gestures, expressions, and delivery. President Obama and you have that at least that in common - the need to Speak...& Deliver.

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