Have you got a tough message to deliver to the troops? Ever had to deliver a guest lecture? Or been asked to speak for an hour or so at a conference or awayday when much is expected of you? Listen to this hour from Barack Obama and find out how to do it well.
In summary: be so relaxed and confident from your first words even your opponents know you are on your best game; get everyone on side at the beginning, despite themselves; set the scene with a compelling story as context; then, when they are all in the room, really go for it.
Deliver elegantly, and be reasonable when it’s appropriate; collegiate when it’s called for; and admit you are wrong when necessary.
But really, really go for it none the less.
And don’t leave anything in the Locker Room. For a while, in oratorical terms, we have seen Obama Lite. Here, it’s Obama Plus. With his ability from behind a lectern there is much that is intuitive when he is in the zone, but here he and his team have decided to turn the heat up a bit. Obama is consciously upping the energy in his delivery to show this really matters; it is not a coincidence that the one criticism is that he is too cool and aloof.
In this piece I’d like to highlight some of the good things you can take from this hour.
His target here, once again, is principally corpulent corporate America, their lobbyists and backers. His audience? Not the one in the room, though he is clever enough and polite enough to include them. This really is a lecture taking every American through his vision of the future. It is packed with personal messages, stories, humour, references and empirical evidence. His intention is to scare: America has lost its pre-eminence whether they like it or not. But he also wants to inspire: America must believe that now is when the most innovative nation on earth is at its best. He is, as he says, looking for a “Sputnik” moment, when the nation wakes up and realises the race to the future is on.
This hour was nothing less than a prescription for a rethinking and a rebooting of America, with some subtle knife-twisting on the record of the previous administration on just about all the big issues thrown in for good measure.
Here is a tip for you: there is no need to re-invent the wheel when it comes to structuring your hour. This one has a powerful top and tail with stories that are unashamedly emotive, and three themes: innovation, education and infrastructure.
Nothing fancy at all. In fact it’s a great illustration on how to break down a fairly long haul into smaller manageable chunks. Three themes of fifteen minutes, with a belter of an introduction after the housekeeping is out of the way and an inspirational peroration.
When you see anyone up there losing their way, and it happens to people who know their stuff intellectually, it’s often because they lacked focus and structure in their preparation.
Sometimes it takes a while to get it simple enough, and simple is usually best. In truth some of the stories are a bit full-on and saccharine sweet for those on the UK side of The Pond, but Obama delivers them with authenticity.
Obama, I believe, has been advised by those close to him to increase the passion here: maybe he listened to some Martin Luther King or Jesse Jackson as a warm up. He is far from aping the style of either, but here is as near as we have seen him really going for it. Maybe the flaming passions of some of the new recruits from the Republican right and Tea Party have led him to realise he has to turn the heat up a bit.
You might want to ask yourself if you could give it a bit more when you are up there, where’s the harm? I can pretty much guarantee you that you and the audience will appreciate your efforts.
The biggest issues for the highest stakes; that’s what Barack Obama is playing for here and he sets out his battleground in three themes: innovation, education and infrastructure
As ever, he delivers. Measured, cool and reasonable, for sure. But while his delivery is everything you would expect it to be and he wants bipartisanship, he is also very assertive. Mark Mardell of the BBC said that Obama threw down the gauntlet as well as extending a hand of friendship. A further analogy might be that he had an iron first in the velvet glove.
You are not pulling your punches when you say, “Our infrastructure used to be the best- but our lead has slipped. South Korean homes now have greater internet access than we do. Countries in Europe invest more in road and rail than we do. China is building faster trains and newer airports. Meanwhile, when our engineers graded our infrastructure, they gave us a ‘D’. We have to do better.”
You are not being subtle when you say, “Over the years, a parade of lobbyists has rigged the tax code to benefit particular companies and industries.”
You are not kidding when you say, “I’m not telling James Howard, a brain cancer patient from Texas, that his treatment might not be covered.”
So, when times are tough and the messages need to be trenchant, take courage and deliver the hard messages, then they might believe you when you talk, to borrow a Churchillian term, of “sunlit uplands”.
But enough of the trenchant stuff. There’s also humour; a great way to burst the bubble of the daft, dangerous and unrealistic. Tea Party activists who are now in government are now finding out that the easy bit is getting elected and keeping promises are the hard yards. The best humour makes us laugh, obviously, and Obama’s timing is mostly spot on when he delivers a laugh line. His Washington Press Association Dinner is worth a look in this regard. But more than that good humour is clever, and it shows the audience that they are clever because they are in on the joke. In other words, if you are not laughing you are just not getting it and are a bit stoooooopid.
The sketch on salmon is impeccable for its delivery, but also its cleverness, because it nods in the direction of the new Congressmen and women on the block, trailing the line that Obama is all for lean, effective government. “The Interior Department is responsible for salmon while they’re in freshwater, but the Commerce Department handles them when it’s saltwater…(some ripples of laughter)… And I hear it gets even more complicated when they’re smoked.” If you need evidence of the power of humour, this gives you it: look at new House Leader, John Bohener, as Obama delivers his punch-line. He knows he is listening to a master!
How powerful is humour? The above section was just about the most reported section of the entire speech, and Huffington Post had a great time on Twitter and Blogs playing with the storyline.
Barack Obama won’t get all he wants just because he delivered a great lecture, but if he keeps on saying it in his measured, reasonable, intelligent way enough Americans might give him the nod in two years time.
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