Last week, US President Barack Obama spoke at the funeral of Rev. Clementa Pinckney in Charleston, South Carolina, after the terrible shooting at the Emanuel AME Church. You may not have time to sit and watch a 30-minute speech at your computer, but you can open it up on your smart phone and simply listen to it while you go about your day, as I did.
Two of President Obama’s eulogies – last week’s speech and the speech at the memorial for victims of the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing – in my opinion are two of his best speeches. Let’s look at last week’s speech.
When I watch a speech, I like to ask myself WHY I like it and WHAT I can learn from it. In last week’s speech, what struck me most was the way the president connected with the audience through building them up instead of himself. There’s a lot we can learn for our own speeches, whether they are eulogies, conference room presentations, or keynote speeches.
- Speak about your audience, not about yourself. If you’ve ever been to one of my workshops, you’ll remember that the first question we ask in public speaking is always, “Who is my audience?” The President demonstrated this by avoiding the words “I” or “me” throughout the speech, unless he was joking about his own age. The rest of the time, the President focused on the audience: their reverend and the other community members they lost, their church and their faith, their local leaders, and their state. When you write a speech, how can you focus on the audience instead of yourself?
- Bring in everybody, not just those present. Although the President spoke directly to those present, he made the speech about more than the people in the room, which is important if you belong to another faith (for instance, I’m Jewish and still felt the speech spoke to me). He made it about all of us as a country when he said, “Not just for blacks, not just for Christians, but for every American who cares about the steady expansion of human rights and human dignity in this country,” and it earned him a standing ovation. How can you make your speech or presentation more inclusive so that those outside your “group” will relate and feel included?
- Use quotes and stories your audience can relate to. The President opened his eulogy by quoting the Bible, which was appropriate for both the audience and the context of the speech. His subsequent statements and vivid stories spoke directly to the beliefs, the history, the experiences, and the faith of his audience. His statement, “Oh, but God works in mysterious ways” led to another standing ovation. When you give a presentation, what quotes and stories can you use to re-enforce beliefs, experiences, or authority figures your audience respects, and how can you build momentum leading to those statements, making sure you pause and let them sink in?
- Repeat themes which are powerful to your audience. Once the President chose a theme the audience strongly related to (the power of God’s grace) and quoted a beloved spiritual (“Amazing Grace”), he kept coming back to that theme again and again with plays on words such as, “For too long, we’ve been blind…perhaps we see that now…” For your next speech, what theme can you choose which the audience can relate to? Take key words from that theme and pepper them into your speech.
- Provide a call to action. Having built this powerful connection with his audience, the President used it as a springboard, “But I don’t think God wants us to stop there,” and he went on to list causes (education, poverty) requiring further action. Although the President did not give specifics, he gave a number of causes to which the audience could connect. When you give a speech, what call to action can you create for your audience, providing an outlet for their built-up energy?
- Show your vulnerability. The most striking moment of the speech was when the President started singing “Amazing Grace.” He didn’t introduce it, he didn’t say “now, please rise and join me in singing…” he simply paused for a very long time, creating suspense, then softly and imperfectly started to sing. That soft song evoked a powerful response from the audience; everyone jumped to their feet and began singing along. Where you can you show vulnerability in your speech in a way that matches the mood of the audience and invites them to join you?
We often think that, as the speaker, we are the focus of any speech or presentation. However, if we want to inspire our audience, the audience should be the main focus. Regardless of your political persuasion or profession, you can apply these lessons in your next speech or presentation. The more you build up your audience, the more you will connect with them and inspire them.