I watched U.S. President Obama’s speech this morning, having taped it from last night. I took 16 pages of notes! It’s an example, in my opinion, of a great presentation — all without PowerPoint!
To summarize, it was clear and passionate. Not many people put both those qualities together in a speech; it’s a very powerful combination. The topic happens to be one of great interest to me, because of a previous career as an Employee Benefits Manager.
Here are some of my observations, mostly about the content:
- Did you notice how he started? “Madame Speaker, Vice President Biden, members of Congress” each time glancing in the appropriate direction to the left or right. Then he finished off, “and the American people” looking straight into the camera in front of him, straight at me! Well done.
- He started by mentioning the economy, because he knows it’s on the minds of many. This was a short section, to let the audience know that he cares and that he’s working on it. He said, “I will not let up until those who seek jobs can find them.” This is a strong, powerful commitment. If you can make a strong commitment to your audience, you too can have a powerful effect.
- Here is his segueway to talking about health care: “We did not come here just to clean up crises. We came here to build a future.” His speech was mostly a motivational speech. He wanted to motivate Congress to come together and act, and the American people to support his plan for health care. In a motivational speech, talking about what the future will look like is important to get people to buy in to the vision.
- President Obama then talked about the history of comprehensive health reform. He gave us the context of the long history of the concept of reform and told us how legislators have dedicated their careers to working on it for so long. We therefore understood some of the importance of the issue from a historical perspective. It’s always important for the audience to understand why your topic is important. Usually, going through history is boring, but here, President Obama gave it emotional impact that was effective.
- The next paragraph was this: “Our collective failure to meet this challenge — year after year, decade after decade — has led us to the breaking point. Everyone understands the extraordinary hardships that are placed on the uninsured, who live every day just one accident or illness away from bankruptcy. These are not primarily people on welfare. These are middle-class Americans. Some can’t get insurance on the job. Others are self-employed, and can’t afford it, since buying insurance on your own costs you three times as much as the coverage you get from your employer. Many other Americans who are willing and able to pay are still denied insurance due to previous illnesses or conditions that insurance companies decide are too risky or too expensive to cover.” In other words, this affects you. And if it doesn’t affect you now, it could affect you any day now. Yes, it makes out the insurance companies to be the evil ones, but that arouses our sense of indignation. In a presentation, you want the audience to know that what you’re saying affects them and you want to express that in a way that hits home.
- Next came some facts and figures to back up the emotion. “We are the only democracy — the only advanced democracy on Earth — the only wealthy nation — that allows such hardship for millions of its people. There are now more than 30 million American citizens who cannot get coverage. In just a two-year period, one in every three Americans goes without health care coverage at some point. And every day, 14,000 Americans lose their coverage. In other words, it can happen to anyone.” And that anyone could be you. Notice that while he was nominally speaking to Congress, he was directing his points to the American people. He was very clear who his audience was. He shifted later on to talk to Congress directly, but that was okay. He had two audiences and spoke directly to both of them in turn.
- Next, President Obama told two stories. “One man from Illinois lost his coverage in the middle of chemotherapy because his insurer found that he hadn’t reported gallstones that he didn’t even know about. They delayed his treatment, and he died because of it. Another woman from Texas was about to get a double mastectomy when her insurance company canceled her policy because she forgot to declare a case of acne. By the time she had her insurance reinstated, her breast cancer had more than doubled in size. That is heart-breaking, it is wrong, and no one should be treated that way in the United States of America.” Stories are always very powerful, and these make you angry. He ends up by stating the obvious, “that is heart-breaking” to drive home the point.
- He next drove home the point about the rising costs and how they affect individuals, small businesses and even large companies that compete internationally. He focused on Medicare and Medicaid, which are a big part of the government’s expenses. “Put simply, our health care problem is our deficit problem. Nothing else even comes close. Nothing else.” Notice that repetition at the end. He used this device to good effect several times. Repetition drives home the point, emphasizes it.
- He ended the section on the problems with the current situation like this, “Now, these are the facts. Nobody disputes them. We know we must reform this system. The question is how.” This sectioning of the talk is a very effective technique. You can use certain words to let your audience know where you are in your speech. This helps people understand the structure and thus the content.
- As a motivational element, President Obama reminded us that “there is agreement in this chamber on about 80 percent of what needs to be done, putting us closer to the goal of reform than we have ever been.” This helped us to see that the process is doable, and reminded us that if Congress failed, there would be no excuse. He was shaming Congress by exposing it to the American people. Remember, his final goal is to get a bill passed, so this is a powerful technique. Of course, you don’t usually want to shame your audience. Politics is a little different…
- A few words later, “Now is the time to deliver on health care. Now is the time to deliver on health care.” There’s that repetition again.
- Then, “The plan I’m announcing tonight would meet three basic goals. It will provide more security and stability to those who have health insurance. It will provide insurance for those who don’t. And it will slow the growth of health care costs for our families, our businesses, and our government.” This sets up the structure for the next whole section of the talk. We know there are 3 points and we know what they will be. It helps us grasp what’s coming up.
- After more explanations of how the program would work, President Obama turned to some specific “bogus” issues that had been raised. Here, he is directly addressing statements made by the Republicans, talk-show hosts, and other Conservatives. The second of these issues had an interesting consequence. It had to do with insuring of illegal immigrants. Republican Congressman Joe Wilson burst out, “You lie!” This is not considered appropriate behavior in the U.S. Congress and even Republicans later condemned his outburst. The consequence has been to help the Democrats. Congressman Wilson later called the White House and apologized. How would you handle a heckler? President Obama just said, “It’s not true,” and continued. He was very calm.
- When talking about the “public option,” which would be a government-sponsored health insurance option, President Obama was trying to explain why it shouldn’t hurt private insurance companies. He gave an example: “the same way public colleges and universities provide additional choice and competition to students without in any way inhibiting a vibrant system of private colleges and universities.” Providing an example that’s familiar is so effective in helping people to understand a new concept.
- After offering some flexibility in ways to create an option, he stood firm on principle, “But I will not back down on the basic principle that if Americans can’t find affordable coverage, we will provide you with a choice.” Health care is both complicated and an emotional issue, but regularly coming back to core principles is valuable in any talk.
- Next came this, “Finally, let me discuss an issue that is a great concern to me, to members of this chamber, and to the public — and that’s how we pay for this plan.” The word, “Finally” let’s us know that the end is near. (It was a long speech!) It provided the audience with signposts for the structure of the speech.
- He started off powerfully. “And here’s what you need to know. First, I will not sign a plan that adds one dime to our deficits — either now or in the future. I will not sign it if it adds one dime to the deficit, now or in the future, period. And to prove that I’m serious, there will be a provision in this plan that requires us to come forward with more spending cuts if the savings we promised don’t materialize.” There’s that repetition again. The use of the word “period” further emphasizes what he’s saying.
- After a few more comments on costs, he said, “In fact, I want to speak directly to seniors for a moment, because Medicare is another issue that’s been subjected to demagoguery and distortion during the course of this debate.” A little later, he said, “Now, these steps will ensure that you — America’s seniors — get the benefits you’ve been promised.” See how he makes it so clear that he’s talking to seniors? Now, you don’t usually have such a segmented audience as the entire American people plus Congress, but President Obama handled it very well. Seniors perked up at this point. If it helps to direct a point of a presentation you’re giving at a specific group, do so, and make it clear who you’re talking to.
- A bit later, he said, “Now, finally, many in this chamber — particularly on the Republican side of the aisle — have long insisted that reforming our medical malpractice laws can help bring down the cost of health care.” This brought significant applause, so President Obama stopped and said, “There you go. There you go,” acknowledging the reaction of the Republicans. This is excellent interactivity — responding to the audience, even in a formal speech.
- Then came one of the most quoted phrases on the speech. “And I will not — and I will not accept the status quo as a solution. Not this time. Not now.” These last two sentences that were often repeated by commentators. They showed his resolve and commitment. They had a nice alliterative, repetitive ring. That made them memorable.
- Later on, “Everyone in this room knows what will happen if we do nothing. Our deficit will grow. More families will go bankrupt. More businesses will close. More Americans will lose their coverage when they are sick and need it the most. And more will die as a result. We know these things to be true.” Here, he is clearly talking to Congress, the people in the room. The implication is that if they do nothing, the consequences will be their fault. And, he describes those consequences in straightforward language.
- Near the end of the speech, President Obama talked about a letter he had received from the late Senator Ed Kennedy, who passed away recently. Senator Kennedy’s widow and children were in the hall. He praised Senator Kennedy’s life-long commitment to health care reform. The fact that Senator Kennedy had recently passed away made the moment very poignant and President Obama took full advantage of that emotion. Emotion is important when you’re trying to persuade.
- Here’s the ending. “I understand that the politically safe move would be to kick the can further down the road — to defer reform one more year, or one more election, or one more term. But that is not what the moment calls for. That’s not what we came here to do. We did not come to fear the future. We came here to shape it. I still believe we can act even when it’s hard. I still believe — I still believe that we can act when it’s hard. I still believe we can replace acrimony with civility, and gridlock with progress. I still believe we can do great things, and that here and now we will meet history’s test.”Because that’s who we are. That is our calling. That is our character. Thank you, God bless you, and may God bless the United States of America.”
Wow. I don’t know anything about President Obama’s speechwriter or how much of it was the President’s own words, but this one was a winner. Clear, powerful, and passionate.
This speech is also a good reminder of the importance of working on content. Decide what you need to say, and then do the following:
- Structure it well
- Add emotion
- Tell stories
- Explain concepts clearly
- Offer signposts for the structure
- Include repetitive elements
The President has a crackerjack marketing team, and this morning I received an e-mail from him! Well, so did millions of others. And I received other e-mails from other people on the Democratic side of the issue. Follow-up, follow-up, follow-up.