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What Presidents' Speeches Can Teach You
Lessons to make your presentations more
by Mike Hartnett (February 2, 2009)
Almost everyone in the industry has to give a speech or a
presentation of some kind, some time. Whether it's a teacher to a
class, a sales rep to a buyer, or a retailer to a women's club,
everyone can learn from the people whose speeches we've heard the
most: The presidents of the United States.
Think of all of the speeches you've heard by Ronald Reagan, Bill
Clinton, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama. Now pretend you don't
understand English and have no idea what they said. Good speakers
have certain given-off's that make their words more effective, more
believable. If you ignore what they said and study how they said it,
you can make your speeches and presentations more effective.
1. Stand up straight. That gives the impression you're
confident about what you're saying, that what you are proposing is
right and true. Presidents Reagan, Clinton, and Obama are excellent
examples: they would stand tall and look you (or the camera) in the
eye. President Bush would often hunch over, even slightly, and shift
his weight from one foot to the other. That sent a subconscious
message that maybe he wasn't so certain he was saying the right
2. If you're going to smile, smile. Presidents Reagan and
Clinton in particular always seemed to genuinely enjoy talking to
the American people. President Obama doesn't smile as much, but
that's probably due to the problems the country has and his message
of sacrifice. President Bush, on the other hand, would often sort of
half smile, which came across as a sneer. Do not ever, ever, EVER
sneer at your audience. So smile, but it better be genuine.
3. "Uh's" can be ok. Everyone's spoken language is
filled with "um's" and "ah's." They're almost
like verbal commas. If fact, if your presentation does not have any
pauses, you present an image that you're not thinking. When a good
speaker pauses, the impression is he wants to make sure he says the
right word. When a poor speaker pauses, the impression is he doesn't
know what to say next.
4. Don't appear to be reading. Many (most?) of the
presidential speeches we've heard were written in advance and spoken
word for word. That's ok, as long as you know your material so well
that you only need an occasional glance down to the copy or ahead to
the teleprompter. If you look like you're tied to your script,
subconsciously the audience wonders, "Well, whose words are we
Years ago President Clinton gave a long speech introducing his
plan to reform the nation's health care system. It was an effective
speech, although not effective enough to ultimately convince
Congress. The next day it was revealed that the teleprompter had
broken early in the speech and he had ad-libbed approximately the
last 30 minutes. He had to have known the material so well that he
could continue talking without anyone in the audience realizing his
script was gone.
Some final thoughts.
1. Many speeches today are accompanied by a Power-Point
presentation, and the speaker does nothing but read what's on the
screen. Audio-visual aids are fine, as long as they illuminate and
enhance the spoken message. If all you're going to do is read the
Power Point, you might as well shut up and pass around hard copies.
2. When I graduated from college my first job was teaching
high school English and Speech. If these presidents had been in my
class, Presidents Reagan, Clinton, and Obama would have received an
A+. President Bush would receive a C-. Perhaps if he had been a more
convincing speaker, his approval ratings wouldn't have been so low.
3. I've given numerous speeches and seminars and never wrote
them word for word beforehand. Instead, I would write an outline of
the points I wanted to make, then go over them so often that
eventually I could condense each point to a single word or phrase.
My final "script" would fit on an index card. If what
you've just read had been a speech, my index card would have read:
Everyone speaks ... Presidents ... No English ... Straight ...
Smile ... Uh's ... Reading ... PP ... Grades ... Index.
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