Last week, President Obama gave his annual State of the Union address and his first since being re-elected. Pundits have since debated the political ramifications of the event. But in this first "Speaker Points" piece, I want to examine whether it was an effective speech, and what lessons you can learn for your own speaking lives. The President has always been a powerful orator, and this time was no exception. For another solid job, I give him 8 speaker points (out of 10).
Let's start with what the President did well. First, he unleashed a good theme, as all good speeches should. This time, the theme was partnership - telling Republicans and the public that bipartisan cooperation is needed to solve America's problems. The speech theory of primacy tells us that audiences remember what they hear first. Relying on this primacy effect, Obama opened his address with the idea of partnership, quoting a John F. Kennedy State of the Union moment - "the Constitution makes us not rivals for power but partners for progress. . . It is my task to report the State of the Union - to improve it is the task of us all." The theme is timely, coming soon after a hardly-fought election battle that left the Republican Party re-grouping. It is also practical, recognizing that Republican support is needed if the President wants to achieve his wide-ranging policy agenda.
As a good orator should, Obama returned to his theme many times. He spoke of the American people expecting Congress "to put the nation's interest before party" and to "forge reasonable compromise where we can." He lauded "both parties" having "worked together to reduce the deficit by more than $2.5 trillion" to date but emphasized the job needs to be finished. He gave specific examples of bipartisan agreement. On climate change, he urged "Congress to pursue a bi-partisan, market-based solution," citing "the one John McCain and Joe Lieberman worked on together a few years ago." On his call to raise the federal minimum wage to $9.00 an hour, Obama pointed to an idea that he and his vanquished opponent Mitt Romney "actually agreed on last year: let's tie the minimum wage to the cost of living, so that it finally becomes a wage you can live on." Partnership was the mantra, and it was effectively repeated.
But lest anyone think President Obama is waiting for Republicans to play nicely in Congress, he also made clear that he would take action, by executive orders if necessary, if Congress could not reach bipartisan agreement. This struck a balance between calling for cooperation, and demanding action.
Second, the President did a sound job of providing specifics. Broad themes are nice but the State of the Union calls for laying out an agenda. Obama laid out quite a number of action items (some say too many, others say not enough) and used supporting examples. For wage equality, he called to increase the federal minimum wage to $9.00 per hour and for passage of the Paycheck Fairness Act to protect women. On energy policy, the President issued a new goal to cut in half the energy wasted by homes and businesses over the next 20 years. For infrastructure repair, there was a proposal of a "Fix-It-First' program to put people to work on most urgent infrastructure repairs, such as fixing the 70,000 structurally deficient bridges in the U.S. While every policy goal did not come with specifics and some people would have liked even more detail, the speech did a credible job in assigning some precision to the goals. And of course, the President did so with action items meant to move the country's policies to more progressive spots on the political spectrum.
Third, the President ended with emotional power by saving the topic of gun safety for last. Just like the primacy effect is important, so too is recency - the concept that audiences remember final points made by a speaker. With the national debate about gun safety reform at a fever pitch, it's hardly surprising that Obama touched upon the issue. By choosing to save the topic for the end of his address, the President made its dramatic impact even greater. He also added personalized resonance, by referencing the Newtown tragedy, the death of 15-year old Hadiya Pendleton in Chicago, Gabby Giffords, and the town of Aurora, Colorado. Obama also brought the issue to life by saying those victims and their families "deserve a vote" on proposals for gun reform, and by delivering those words with the emphatic force for which he is known. It would have been hard for anyone watching not to feel an emotional reaction as the speech came to a close.
Even with all those effective points, there are some things which the President could have done better. On substance, I would have liked to see Obama try to address how to pay for his ambitious plans. After all, that is the obvious retort by opponents (and indeed formed the crux of Senator Marco Rubio's "rebuttal" speech on behalf of Republicans.) When you know an argument is coming back at you, it's wise to proactively deflect the rebuttal before it even comes.
On style points, the address clearly had an organized structure, but it would have been nice to have some preview about where the speech was headed. Political speeches rarely give formal roadmaps, but some more bread crumbs along the trail would have made it easier to understand how all the points fit into the overall picture. And while the address ended with some poetic flourishes, it would have been nice to have more "highlights" earlier in the speech. Some more memorable turns of phrases or emotional moments would have livened up the first half.
All in all, it was an effective address to kick off the agenda for Obama's second term. And it provides a good opportunity to pick up some points for your own speaking life.
- Establish a good theme early, and keep going back to it.
- Back up your thematic message with specifics.
- Proactively deflect expected criticisms.
- Save your strongest emotional power for the end.
- But keep your audience attentive for that big ending by giving clues about where the speech is headed, and by having some early moments of flourish.
You may never stand before Congress as our country's chief executive. But use these speaker points and you too can speak like a President.