Saturday, January 23, 2010

4 speech don'ts from the State of the Union

You might well think that the President's State of the Union speech -- coming up this week -- would be a worthy example of how a top leader should give a speech, something you can borrow from the next time you need to give an important, formal speech.

I'm here to tell you: Don't do it.  And I'm not alone. Today's Washington Post (free signup needed to see content) polled former presidential speechwriters, most of whom acknowledge it's a speech designed to do too much--despite being a grand national event.  Instead of putting do's from this speech in your playbook, make sure your next formal speech adheres to these don'ts you can cull from the State of the Union:
  1. Don't try to please everyone.   Nixon speechwriter Lee Huebner calls the State of the Union a "schizophrenic speech," and no wonder.  It's supposed to be sober and uplifting, mix workaday concerns and grand national drama, and share specifics while waxing eloquent.  Make sure your formal speech has a focus and sticks with it.  You won't please everyone, anyway.
  2. Don't decorate it like a Christmas tree.  In part due to pressure from federal agencies, in part to show a command of a wide range of issues, the State of the Union winds up gilded with presents and decorations for everyone.  Before your own speech topples over, pare the extras and make sure your central message is clear and uncluttered with asides and extras.
  3. Don't mention those heroes in the balcony.  Reagan speechwriter Aram Bakshian now rues the day he wrote in a mention of Lenny Skutnik, who dove into the Potomac to rescue a survivor of an Air Florida crash. It was the first time a president referred to a hero sitting with the First Lady in the visitors' gallery, and it's become an overdone tradition since.  Make your thanks and praise of audience members, committee members and others profuse and private, so your speech's precious amount of time is focused on your message.
  4. Don't use the clock that comes with your position.  There's no audience that thinks the speaker was too brief, and you'd be hard pressed to find anyone who thinks the State of the Union is short enough (except for special interests looking for a mention).  No matter how formal the occasion, brevity is your friend.
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