Obama’s State of the Union: Five Weak Spots

President Obama’s State of the Union Address (SOTU) represented a rare landslide victory for the White House. Two polls taken immediately afterwards found that a whopping 84 to 91 percent of viewers gave the speech positive marks, and that independent voters responded strongly in favor of his bipartisan message.

But as a full-time media and presentation trainer, I couldn’t help noticing the speech’s flaws. A few moments felt just a little off, others represented missed opportunities, and at least two were downright cringe-inducing.

Since many writers have already documented what the President did well in Tuesday’s speech, my focus here is on what the President can improve upon.

That’s not to suggest the President’s speech was bad; quite the contrary. His was a solid, if uninspiring, address. But even brilliant orators can improve – and in that spirit, here are five things the President should do differently for next year’s State of the Union.

1. Choose Bigger Stories

Every President since Ronald Reagan has used the SOTU to tell stories about a few “real people” in the audience. Well-chosen anecdotes can help bring abstract topics to life, and it is a good idea for speakers to alternate between general themes and specific examples.

But this year’s stories felt too small and incidental to land an emotional punch. The stories served more as transitions, failing to highlight successes in a substantive way and instead coming across as a hackneyed speechwriting technique. The longest anecdote – about a Pennsylvania company that helped rescue trapped Chilean miners – was also, not coincidentally, the most effective of the evening.

2. Mark Chapter Beginnings and Ends

This year’s SOTU had a terrific narrative structure (“Win the future”), containing four chapters in the middle: Encouraging American innovation, educating our kids, rebuilding our infrastructure, and reducing the debt.

But Mr. Obama didn’t sufficiently make clear when one chapter ended and another began. His transition from point one (innovation) to point two (education) didn’t clearly indicate the beginning of a new chapter. His transition from point two to three (infrastructure) did point out a new chapter, but was delivered in a cadence too similar to the material immediately preceding it.

The President should have more explicitly marked each new “chapter” from the last, helping to move his audience seamlessly from point to point.

3. Develop Better Comparisons

Comparisons – in the form of similes, metaphors, and analogies – can be a speechwriter’s most effective rhetorical device. But a poorly-chosen comparison risks obscuring the larger point and distracting the audience, as did this one:

“Cutting the deficit by gutting our investments in innovation and education is like lightening an overloaded airplane by removing its engine. It may make you feel like you’re flying high at first, but it won’t take long before you feel the impact. (Laughter.)”
The notation of “laughter” at the end of the quote is from the official White House transcript. It is a dishonest transcription, since you don’t hear laughter at the end of that line, but rather an audible groan.

Obama SOTU 2011 Pete Souza

Official White House Photo by Pete Souza

4. Lose the Shtick

As my friends are painfully aware, my humor comes straight from the Borscht Belt. So I laughed out loud at Mr. Obama’s salmon quip: “The Interior Department is in charge of salmon while they’re in fresh water, but the Commerce Department handles them when they’re in saltwater. I hear it gets even more complicated once they’re smoked.”

But as funny as his delivery was, I found the joke wildly out of place for a SOTU. Imagine, for example, that you’re a relative of a loved one serving overseas. You’re waiting anxiously to hear the President’s remarks on the wars abroad. Do you really want to hear a silly fish joke before a single word on our nation’s involvement in Afghanistan and Iraq?

His quip about not needing a pat down prior to boarding trains was also ill-considered. As someone who rides Amtrak several times each month, I sure didn’t appreciate a joke pointing out train’s glaring security vulnerabilities.

5. Reduce The Hushed Tone

When President Obama sought to emphasize a key point, he used a hushed tone, something akin to a “spoken whisper.” It is a perfectly good technique, one that helps speakers align their words to their vocal delivery. But he used it dozens of times during the speech, reducing its impact on every subsequent use.

Instead of over-emphasizing the spoken whisper, he should employ a greater variety of the tools he has demonstrated so effectively in the past. For example, he might emphasize his words by adding volume more often, rushing certain passages while slowing down in others, and occasionally highlighting key phrases with a more pronounced staccato delivery.

This piece was originally published by Bulldog Reporter, an excellent public relations website. Thanks to editor Richard Carufel for commissioning the story.

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