How to maintain the focus of speeches and presentations

The president’s annual State of the Union address not only provides U.S. residents with an overview of priorities for the year but also gives commentators a chance to point out all the ways the speech fell short. Even the most effective communicators are constrained by a number of unique factors for this address:

The setting and pageantry, which includes both houses of Congress and the Supreme Court, almost mandate a certain tone and approach that can be obstacles to speaking directly about issues.
The multiple audiences that the president must speak to—political leaders, the general populace, international audiences, and the media—all value different things, so the speech is an incredibly tricky balancing act to speak to them all at once.

The evolving news environment has changed the State of the Union from the rare chance for the U.S. residents to hear from the president firsthand to just another brief installment in the 24-hour news cycle.

As a result, recent presidents have had a tendency to fall back on a laundry list of initiatives, making the speech longer and less effective. It’s not a huge surprise why this is so. I happened to catch Michael Waldman, a speech writer who worked on four State of the Union addresses for President Clinton, on The Colbert Report talking about how these speeches are developed.

“. . . cabinet secretaries are involved, the advisers get involved, words matter. The difference between calling something ‘a priority’ and ‘the priority’ might mean billions of dollars in the budget. It’s where the president sets out his whole governing agenda, so it’s something that they work on for a long time.”

Waldman highlights a frequent challenge in preparing any important speech or presentation: having so many cooks in the kitchen that the key messages are diluted to the point of ineffectiveness. From my experience, I have rarely seen people who are asked for their feedback actually shorten a speech or presentation: they each add a few extra ideas, if for no other reason than to justify their position in the organization.

To preempt this problem, leaders should assemble a small, trusted group of advisers and move forward with an understanding that more isn’t better. In fact, a speech should be treated like a hot nightclub at capacity: new ideas can be included, but only when others are removed or consolidated.

Call it the “one-in, one-out” policy. You might have to ruffle a few feathers internally and have some difficult conversations to maintain focus, but your speech—and the audience—will be better off for it.

Scott Leff

Scott is the founder of LEFF. He’s spent his career helping executives and subject matter experts tell their story in a compelling way. In the process, he’s had the opportunity to work with C-suite executives, politicians, academics, and Olympians, not to mention dozens of talented writers, editors, and designers in the business world. Scott developed the concept of “lean content creation” as a cost-effective way to support comprehensive, integrated communication strategies.

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