5 public speaking lessons from Obama’s farewell address

Millions watched the commander in chief’s final address to the nation. Here’s what PR pros can take from it.

Those who watched President Barack Obama’s recent farewell address on TV were part of an audience of more 24 million.

Countless others joined in to watch on digital media channels. For PR pros, Obama’s speech offers many lessons for connecting with our audiences.

Here are five you can apply to your own presentations:

1. Know your audience.

Obama knew his audience. That’s an important element to connecting, says Krysten Copeland, founder of ‎Washington, D.C.-based KC & Co Communications.

“Throughout the years, Obama has proved that he’s very much in touch,” Copeland says. “He understands some of the key words and phrases that will spring his audience into action.”

One of the warmest moments of Obama’s farewell address was when he left the hall with his family, greeting people he recognized in the crowd. At one point, Michelle tapped him on the shoulder to point out what might have been an old old friend from their pre-D.C. days in Chicago.

Even if you don’t know the people you are reaching out to, try to visualize one audience member in intimate detail, and speak directly to him or her. Everyone else will feel much more connected to you, as well.

This tip can apply to giving a speech, tweeting or building a website. It’s why PR and marketing pros spend time creating customer “personas.”

2. Relate to your audience.

Obama does not distance himself from his audience, nor does he draw distinctions between himself and us. Instead, he says phrases such as, “It’s up to all of us” and, “… challenges we still face.”

This leveling of speaker and audience creates a strong connection. Obama takes it further by being self-deprecating. His first joke of the night, as he tried to hush the crowd, was:

You can tell I’m a lame duck, because nobody’s following instructions.

Relating to your audience removes barriers and can open a line between you and your listeners.

3. Build a community.

Message distribution can be the difficult part of communications, but it’s crucial to success.

Obama’s White House staff are masters at audience building, as evidenced by their large email list and social media following. Obama disintermediated the journalists with his social media tactics. The president-elect, Donald Trump, continues that through his YouTube, Twitter and other online communications.

Don’t skimp on building and maintaining an audience. Not every PR pro (or client) can command an audience and have the access to a microphone and stage as our commander-in-chief. Once upon a time, neither could Obama. Legwork, along with a lot of blocking and tackling, over his career made this happen.

4. Show emotion.

Don’t be afraid to cry a bit—or smile and laugh (a lot).

Sincere tears show vulnerability and openness. It opens the audience to your message—and to you. It’s also a photo opportunity. The same goes for smiling and laughing.

5. Focus on your vision.

After eight years in office, we know where Obama is coming from when he speaks. That means there’s a lot of thinking listeners don’t have to do, because he’s already done the work of sharing his vision and connecting the dots.

In contrast, if you’re new to your audience, lay your vision out early and often. Build off it throughout your presentation, as well as the arc of your organization’s growth.

Barak Kassar is the co-founder of BKW Partners, a San Francisco-based agency.

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