People can agree or disagree with Barack Obama’s policies, but no one can dispute how well the man can write and speak. Historian Doris Kearns Goodwin predicts Obama will go down in the history books as “one of the best writers and orators in the presidency.”
While Obama is unquestionably skilled at communications, he had help. Jon Favreau started speechwriting for Obama in 2005 and served as President Obama’s director of speechwriting from 2009 to 2013. As a founder of Fenway Strategies, Favreau frequently shares tips on how to make speeches or presentations memorable. Here are some of them:
- Words have power – Choose and array your words carefully so they clearly and concisely convey your message. Be aware of the nuanced meaning of different words. “Destination” and “last stop” mean roughly the same thing, but each can convey a very different message.
- Use words to tell a story – People absorb and retain information better in the form of stories. From the earliest age, people learn from stories. Our brains are wired to listen to stories and draw out meaning. Stories connect with deeper parts of our consciousness. They communicate complexity through simplicity.
- The best speeches are short – You may have a lot to say, but your audience may not be patient or interested enough to hear it all. If not, they can mentally check out – or more often check in with their smartphone. Shorter speeches are harder to write than long ones, but they work better because the speechwriter has congealed his or her thoughts, translated them into a story and employed powerful words to tell the story.
- Support your main point – Generalizations or unsupported claims tend to leave audiences wanting and even confused. Rambling sows the seeds of doubt. So, marshal your facts and employ logic to support what you have to say. Leave no doubt in your audience's collective mind of your point of view and the credible evidence that supports it.
- Emotion inspires – If the speaker doesn’t display an emotional connection to his or her subject, it is unlikely the audience will either. There is a line you can cross when a speech becomes a rant, too full of emotion and too lacking of a meaningful message. But if your goal Is to motivate or persuade, you will need to inspire your audience with some emotional content.
- Empathy Matters – Effective speakers do more than know their audience; they put themselves in the shoes of their audience. They use language and anecdotes that resonate. They talk less from a podium than a chair facing audience members. Establishing empathy is important at the outset of any speech. You can sense a bond of empathy has formed when audience members appear to lean forward to hear your words.
Here’s one more secret. You don’t need to be a gifted speaker to make a great speech. Starting with a story to tell, telling it with carefully chosen words and phrases, keeping it short, marshaling your facts, infusing your talk with heart-felt emotion and relating to your audience can produce an inspiring speech. You can change minds, open eyes and uplift spirits.
The applause you receive will be genuine, not just polite. In the words of a well known football coach, you will have won the day.