What Presidents’ Speeches Can Teach You

Lessons to make your presentations more effective.

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 thing.

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 really hearing?”

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.

(Note: To read previous Business-Wise entries, click on the titles in the right-hand column.)