5 public speaking lessons from ‘House of Cards’

Frank Underwood may be a devious scoundrel, but he can be both charming and commanding. Make the most of these takeaways (and forgo the political chicanery).


Netflix recently released the third season of its series “House of Cards.”

This critically acclaimed political drama is the story of Frank Underwood, a high-powered congressman who, after being passed over for appointment as secretary of state, initiates an ambitious plan to obtain a position of even greater power.

As the third season unfolds, Underwood’s elaborate scheming has come to fruition, and he steps in as president. Every episode has Underwood delivering important high-stakes presentations: campaigning at a town hall meeting, briefing the press, addressing the nation and debating opponents.

So, what can this notorious character teach high-integrity business leaders about message delivery?

After binge-watching all 13 episodes, I can tell you that there are a number of presentation delivery lessons we can learn from Frank Underwood. Consider these (no spoilers, I promise):

1. Glance and grab like a pro: Addressing the nation.

In episode 26, Underwood addresses the nation, announcing his America Works initiative. As you watch this scene, look closely and you will see a glass plate to the right of the podium, also known as a “presidential paddle.” This type of teleprompter reflects rolling text to the speaker without being visible to the audience. Underwood is a teleprompter pro, speaking fluidly with natural pauses and inflections. He “glances and grabs” a phrase from the teleprompter while maintaining eye contact with his TV audience, giving the impression that he is talking directly to you.

2. Use notes as a guide: The press briefing.

Many times clients will ask, “Can I use notes when I am speaking?” The answer is yes. Underwood does it masterfully in episode 32. Similar to his use of the teleprompter, he glances down to grab the next point from his notes with the goal of speaking to his audience and not at the script. Underwood knows what he wants to say and uses his notes only to keep the facts straight and guide his delivery.

3. Expressions tell all: The debate.

The debate featuring three Democratic hopefuls in episode 37 not only is one of the best scenes of the season but also offers a valuable learning experience for speakers. Filled with sharp, well-timed dialogue, one candidate clearly loses ground for one reason: facial expressions. Though all three are on the attack, two keep pleasant looks on their faces that translate as “I am serious and still approachable,” whereas the third candidate looks stern, shows anger and, as a result, comes across as remote and disagreeable.

4. How to work a crowd: The campaign trail.

Numerous town hall meetings serve to highlight the more casual and folksy side of Underwood. Always wearing his leather bomber jacket for these events, he remains “presidential” while using a more conversational tone, employing colloquialisms and turning up his Southern ways. In episode 37, Underwood works the crowd, panning his body to be sure that he speaks to everyone in his audience, and stepping closer when someone asks a question. Notice his impeccable posture and his purposeful use of gestures.

5. Broadcast media presence: Television appearances.

Underwood makes several TV appearances in season 3. What contributes to his telegenic presence in this environment? Again, it’s his regal posture and the way he sits in the front of the chair, leaning slightly forward. He takes his time, uses a conversational tone and maintains his smile.

How do you think Underwood’s delivery skills contribute to his messaging’s success? Please share your thoughts in the comments section.

Stephanie Scotti is a strategic communication adviser specializing in high-stake presentations. A version of this article originally appeared on SmartBrief on Leadership.

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