Former President Barack Obama has been noted for his public speaking excellence for over a decade. In 2004 he raised the bar from presenters and public speakers all over the world when he delivered his keynote speech at the Democratic National Convention in Boston. Since that moment which propelled him into the spotlight his speeches have changed the way countless people communicate. Regarded as one of the worlds most gifted and powerful orators today his recent speech to more than a thousand students at the University of Illinois-Urbana Champaign was charged with public speaking lessons for all of us.
Whilst his speech was a clear condemnation of Republicans in Washington and a public criticism of the current President of the United States if you are able to put the politics to one side for a moment here is what you will see:
1. Being serious doesn’t have to be boring
Despite the very serious nature of his speech revolving around the need for action and urgency Barack Obama still managed to lighten things up.
Rather than launching immediately into his concerns about his view on American politics today he began by saying:
“It is good to be home. It’s good to see corn.”
“It’s good to see corn, beans. I was trying to explain to somebody as we were flying in: ‘That’s corn. That’s beans.’ They were very impressed at my agricultural knowledge.
Whatever your message is find a moment to not take yourself too seriously so that your audience get to smile as well as pay attention.
2. It pays to know your audience
This was a speech that was crafted with a very clear intention and objective. It was designed to make people feel concerned and compelled to vote. Before its earnestness Barack Obama had clearly done his homework to lift the mood as high as he could before delivering his message.
“I want to start by addressing the elephant in the room. I know people are still wondering why I didn’t speak at the 2017 Commencement. The Student Body President sent a very thoughtful invitation, students made a spiffy video, and when I declined, I hear there was speculation that I was boycotting campus until Antonio’s Pizza reopened. So, I want to be clear, I did not take sides in that late-night food debate.”
By far the best way to connect with your audience is by knowing as much as you can about them before you stand to speak. Do your homework and learn as much as you can about them in advance.
3. Be very clear on your message
Obama spoke for just over an hour which ordinarily is a long time. He used every minute wisely and very effectively ensuring that everything he said supported the reason he had chosen to speak. He had one simple but very clear message and made certain that his hour was used mindfully as a platform to ensure his audience understood and felt it.
“I’m here today because this is one of those pivotal moments when every one of us, as citizens of the United States, need to determine just who it is that we are, just what it is that we stand for, and as a fellow citizen, not as an ex-president, but as a fellow citizen, I’m here to deliver a simple message, and that is that you need to vote because our democracy depends on it.”
If you are not clear on your own message then you can be absolutely certain that your audience won’t be either. When you sit down to build your presentation start with a clear, concise and compelling message and then make sure that everything you say supports it.
4. Speak in sound bites
A soundbite is simply something that your audience will remember which supports and animates your message. When you are speaking for an hour its very easy to lose your audience. One compelling way of making sure that they not only stay with you but feel the impact of your words is to build in potent statements.
“In two months, we have the chance to restore some semblance of sanity to our politics.”
“Just a glance at recent headlines should tell you that this moment really is different. The stakes really are higher. The consequences of any of us sitting on the side-lines are more dire.”
“I complained plenty about Fox News, but you never heard me threaten to shut them down, or call them ‘enemies of the people.”
Give your audience something they will remember by supporting and animating your message with powerful sound bites that they can relate to.
5. Silence truly is golden
Two years ago, I wrote and published an article called, ‘Obama — Master of the pause’ in which I stated, ‘he is unquestionably the master of the pause.’
For many presenters and public speakers two seconds of silence feels like an uncomfortable eternity in their minds. What we don’t always appreciate is that those two seconds of quiet are a gift to our audience. It allows your message to get through and settle in their minds, it allows them to keep up with you when you have so much to say and it allows them to breathe too.
A pause exudes confidence, gravitas and sends a clear message to your audience that you care; be sure to build them into your presentation.
6. Don’t just pause, slow down
Many of us are in a rush to speak and in the process, we speak too fast and our audience often struggle to keep up with us. Barack Obama is not only the master of the pause but the pacemaker of public speaking too.
The best public speakers and presenters have a conversational tone and pace. It’s easy to keep up with them, they breathe in between sentences and they speak with great clarity.
Each time Obama speaks he does so with a quiet sincerity that allows you to follow and understand his every word which he chooses very carefully.
Don’t be in a rush to speak, give your audience the gift of slowing down, breathing and pausing.
7. Keep it real
Among his many public speaking strengths is one of humility. You can be sure that Barack Obama will always give you a momentary glimpse into what is going on his personal as well as professional world. Most audiences warm to the idea of knowing a little more about their speaker it helps us to relate to them on a human level. This speech was no different as very early on Obama made a point of telling his audience:
“The truth is, after eight years in the White House, I needed to spend some time one-on-one with Michelle if I wanted to stay married.
And she says hello, by the way. I also wanted to spend some quality time with my daughters, who were suddenly young women on their way out the door. And I should add, by the way, now that I have a daughter in college, I can tell all the students here, your parents suffer.
They cry privately. It is brutal. So please call. Send a text.”
Whether you’re the former president, CEO, department head, or customer service agent don’t stop there. If you’re a brother, sister, father, mother or simply someone’s partner be that too.
He may be one of my personal favourite speakers but this isn’t an article about politics. It’s an article about impact.
Each of us has an opportunity to lead and make an impact each time we speak. Speaking is easy but doing so with impact is often a challenge. These 7 lessons from Barack Obama’s most recent and many other great speeches will serve us well.
Watch the full speech here:
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