Jan 20, 2009

Obama's speech: lessons for all speakers

Many preparation and delivery lessons can be gleaned from studying Obama's inaugural speech. Here are just a few:

  • It's OK to be nervous. When Obama first appeared on screen, you could tell from his pursed lips that this wasn't a walk in the park for him. As others before him spoke, he clenched his jaw and often closed his eyes. These are typical behaviours of someone who is a bit nervous before speaking. It took him a while to shake those jitters but they seemed to have disappeared by the time he delivered his speech.
  • Writing is important. You cannot come up with phrases like “To those who cling to power through corruption and deceit and the silencing of dissent, know that you are on the wrong side of history; but that we will extend a hand if you are willing to unclench your fist.” You can't. This has to be written, rehearsed, and re-written. If you are aiming to deliver a powerful speech, think of writing it out.
  • You can make mistakes. On a couple of occasions, Obama had a slight hesitation in the speech. Notice that he did not apologize, he did not become flustered, he did not lose his composure. He just kept on going. His biggest blunder, though, occurred before the speech when he messed up the words during his swearing in (to his defence, the chief judge messed up first). What did he do? He smiled and kept on going. He will be picked on a bit by the comedians, but that's it.
  • Converse with the audience. There was not a lot of fanfare during his delivery. He did not jump up and down to make a point. He remained poised and calm throughout, as if speaking to more than one million people in his backyard. That helped make it more effective.
  • Don't lie. Obama pulled no punches. To summarize his speech: times are hard, we made errors in the past and everyone is paying for it today. Everyone has some responsibility for the current mess and everyone is going to work together to fix it. This was not your typical rosy, rar-rah-rah, "You can do it!" speech. It was somber and set the tone for what's to come. It won't be fun, but it's got to be done. A great speech will set the tone for the changes to come, but if you lie to the audience it will come back to bite you.
Obama's speech may have longer-lasting impacts on oratory style, but that's for another discussion.


  1. Hi Laurent
    Your newsletter and blog are both very well written and always offer many great tips that I appreciate. Thank you.