Can We Learn from Obama’s Acceptance Speech?

When Sen. Barack Obama spoke last night, I was excited about the chance to draw lessons for today’s post.  Such a prominent speech should be a wonderful teaching opportunity about public speaking. Right?

And I enjoyed his speech, though I did find myself flipping back and forth to the US Open match featuring Rafael Nadal.

But when the speech was over I was frustrated. And it took me a while to figure out why.

Then it hit me. The fact is that there is not much practically that the average business person can learn about public speaking from giant political speeches like the one that Barack Obama delivered last night at Invesco Field in Denver.

This political theater is so far removed from what the average person has to do in his daily work life that I have a hard time seeing how it relates.

Audience is too broad and message too unfocused

Let’s start with content. Last night Barack Obama laid out a broad political agenda, attacked his opponent, and tried to inspire a nation with well-crafted language. In other words, he was addressing an incredibly broad, undefined audience and seeking to accomplish several things at once.

Great business presentations are far more focused.  If you’re giving a sales pitch, you identify specific business problem and show how you can help. If you’re giving an internal presentation, you’re moving colleagues to action by detailing a specific plan for success.

Try to do too many things, and you’re sure to fail and frustrate your audience.  Great business presentations carefully address well-defined audience needs. Obama didn’t do that last night because his audience, consisting of the American electorate, is so broad as to be almost undefined.

Too long

And then there’s the length.  Obama’s speech last night was a 44-minute one-way conversation.  While that’s perfectly appropriate for a convention speech, that usually doesn’t fly in a business meeting. People are too busy. And even if they’re not too busy, who wants to hear anyone other than Barack Obama speak for 44 minutes straight?  

The best business presentations are more like conversations, with plenty of chance for the audience to interrupt, push back, and ask questions.

And I love his style, but  . . . ,

Now let’s look at the style issues. To be sure, we can all learn from Obama’s wonderfully inspirational style. He manages to be both exciting and conversational at the same time. His voice rises and falls like a roller coaster, yet he sounds like he’s having a conversation. 

But one of the reasons people love Obama’s style is his great voice.  The man is endowed with a wonderfully smooth sound.  Too many people hear such wonderful voices and try to imitate them.  But you’ll never be a good speaker by imitating someone else. The best corporate speakers maximize their own vocal qualities by speaking with the same passion that they bring to an animated dinner conversation.

And then there’s the script

Finally, Obama was reading a script. It may not have seemed that way. But he was on the TelePrompTer.  And business speakers should never read a script. It undermines credibility.  The best business communicators speak extemporaneously from notes. Once again, the effect you’re trying for is an animated dinner conversation.

Don’t get me wrong. I think Obama gave a great speech. But it was a political speech delivered for political consumption.  

I don’t just don’t think that the VP of Sales for a software company should use it as a model for next week’s pitch.

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