Part I: Spicing Up Obama’s Inaugural Address

By Peter Jeff
The Leadership Mints Guy

 This is the 1st in a series of 5 posts
on Rhetorical Tips and Techniques
that President Obama could have used
to make his Second Inaugural Address
more memorable.
Boldface indicates
a departure from the original script.

President Barack Obama’s Second Inaugural Address could have used some rhetorical spice.

           Obama mug shotAt least that’s the feeling of pundits from all political persuasions who were left groping for a memorable phrase –or a meaningful key message– among his 2,147 words following his 18 minute 40 second speech that seemed more bland than grand.

President Obama delivers Second Inaugural Address

President Obama delivers Second Inaugural Address

           How could a podium pro like Mr. Obama fall victim to such a pedestrian performance from a purely speaking perspective? And what could you do to protect yourself from the same malady if you had to deliver an address to your company  as their new leader?

              Read on to see how Mr. Obama could have engineered his own “Ask-Not-What -Your- Country- Can- Do -For- You etc” mark in the minds of millions. Read on to learn how you can more fully write and deliver a speech that will leave your audience humming your tune and maybe even dancing to your message.

         Read on for a general critique of Mr. Obama’s speech writing efforts. Then explore three follow-up posts that will more fully develop speech writing  tips and techniques that Mr. Obama and his speech writing team could have use for a more MEMORABLE opening,  a more MEANINGFUL middle and a more MOBILIZING close.

Restructuring Not Rewriting

     Then on Friday February 1 this 5 part series concludes with a full RESTRUCTURING –not a rewriting — of the President Obama’s Inaugural Address that more thematically connects all the dots.   In fact the final version that I will post on the last day of this five-part series will use ALL of the President’s words in his original script. My intent is to maintain the tone of this speech while helping the audience better tune in to the message.

       My objective is not partisan or political. It’s clarity in the communications process from a veteran speech writer’s perspective. My analysis is  based on my 30 years in leadership development training and corporate communications helping CEOs frame their remarks, write their speeches, strategically position their thinking.  My experience as a speechwriter includes 15 years writing and study the public speaking process in Toastmasters International  and 10 years teaching public speaking at the college level.

       writing5  My bias is that the most effective public speakers influence behavior. Words matter in the leadership process.  Yet too often those words are written more for the speaker’s lips than the audience’s ears.  That’s why the pundits hailed Mr. Obama’s Inaugural Address as “bold, assertive, aggressive”  and “historically significant”  yet lackluster, pedestrian and virtually forgettable from the audience’s perspective.

          And that has to be regrettable from the speaker’s perspective especially in a speech themed around engaging the populace,  to “move forward together” on securing for every American life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness as long as we “seize it together.”

       There has to be a better way. And that’s what Leadership Mints –the blog you’re reading — is all about: finding a better way to helping leaders freshen their bottom-line thinking, speaking and doing.

        So let’s begin with a general critique of President Obama’s Second Inaugural Address.   Let’s first discover how a polished speaker like Mr. Obama didn’t live up to his own reputation as a compelling speaker. What went wrong?

Curse of the Explainer-in-Chief

       Mr. Obama turned the podium into a pulpit. He turned his speech into a sermon.  And he turned himself from the Commander-in-Chief into the Explainer-in-Chief. Great if you’re at a partisan convention but not when you are speaking to a world wide audience listening first for where you’re COMING FROM more than where you are GOING. Inaugurals are more philosophical endeavors, distinct and different from the issues-filled laundry list of a State of the Union speech for example. Lists are far easier to compile than philosophical insights.

         So the first step in writing an inaugural speech is to be aware of the Curse of the Explainer-in-Chief. President Obama, a former college professor with a lawyerly logical thinking process, embraces the Explainer-in-Chief role:  the tendency to set the dining table– writ large; the tendency to serve the dinner with a full course of platitudes to digest from partisan soup topartisan nuts as if it were a campaign stop. Instead the audience,  nearly a million standing in the  January cold,  are merely listening for a nugget or two to chew on that will satiate their hunger and quench their thirst for an even safer, more secure, prosperous life.

       Mr. Obama , an  esteemed author  of two best selling books  Dreams from My Father  and Audacity of Hope , had a lot to say in his Inaugural Address.  So much that he told his speech -writing team to fill various verbal “buckets” with key issues he wanted to share.

       How do you reign in a professor-turned-president, a professor who happens to also be   prolific speechwriter in his own right ? Not an easy task, especially when his pen sweeps across page after page of his ubiquitous yellow legal pads in midnight musings from his well disciplined  lawyerly mind.  This president knows what he wants to say and often says it better than anyone else. No wonder  the President’s chief speechwriter — Jon Favreau–admitted struggling with writing of this inaugural message. 

         Yet even a professional writer like Mr. Obama sometimes has to take a step back and really  listen to how his speech sounds. Even the best speechwriters know that  SOUND THINKING alone does not always produce  SOUND SPEAKING. In the next two posts, we will focus on a few speech writing tips and tricks that Mr. Obama and his speech writing team, could have used to develop and deliver a SOUND speech that the audience would long remember and act on.

 TOMORROW  Part II-Inaugural Spice: Making the Opening More Memorable

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