6 public speaking lessons from an Air Force Academy leader

Lieutenant General Jay Silveria recently addressed racial attacks in a press conference that’s now gone viral. Here’s what communicators of all stripes can take from his powerful words.


It’s easy to see why a speech by the Air Force Academy’s superintendent went viral.

Five black cadet candidates at the U.S. Air Force Academy Preparatory School were recently targeted in message boards with ugly racist attacks.

According to the Air Force Times:

Lt. Col. Allen Herritage, director of public affairs for the academy, said the slurs were discovered Monday. One cadet candidate’s mother posted a photo on her Facebook page Wednesday that shows the words “go home n*****r” written on the white board outside her son’s room.

Lt. Gen. Jay Silveria addressed thousands of students about the verbal attacks. His five-minute speech is worth watching in full. As many commenters on the YouTube video remarked, “This is what leadership looks like.”

To help you improve your own presentations, consider these six elements Silveria aced in his speech:

1. His message was unambiguous.

Silveria’s message was so clear, it’s virtually impossible to believe any of his cadets missed it:

If you can’t treat someone with dignity and respect, then get out.

He also had a strong supporting message that buttressed his main statement:

The appropriate response for horrible language and horrible ideas … is a better idea.

2. He closed strong.

In essence, Silveria “dropped the mic” at the end of his talk.

By refusing to add superfluous language to soften his message, Silveria ensured that his main message (“then get out”) would retain its strength and land with a bang. Watch his body language after he delivered his final words: His tone supplemented his unwavering message perfectly.

3. He used a group’s collective power.

Silveria spent considerable time listing other leaders in the room. That sent a message that he wasn’t speaking for himself, but rather on behalf of the entire leadership and management team.

There are so many people here; they’re lining the outside along the windows. These are members of the faculty, coaching staff, AOCs, AMTs. from the air fields, from my staff and my headquarters. All aspects of the 10th Air Base Wing, all aspects that make up USAFA, and the United States Air Force Academy. Leadership is here, you heard from Brig. Gen. Goodwin, Brig Gen Armagost is here.

In addition to presenting a powerful unified face to the cadets, this device almost certainly served as a useful reinforcement of priorities to those in leadership positions, as well.

4. He demanded action.

By asking the cadets to take out their cell phones, Silveria forced them to become active participants rather than passive observers.

A cynical interpretation might be that he was trying to create a viral moment (even if that’s true, such a viral moment could only help spread their values to others inside and outside the Air Force). A kinder interpretation acknowledges the power of having that moment on the phones of thousands of cadets as permanent reminders.

5. He avoided political landmines.

It’s impossible to watch Silveria’s speech without understanding the subtext of the political and cultural moment. Though many people will interpret this speech as, in Twitter lexicon, a “subtweet” of President Donald Trump, Silveria stated USAFA’s values without putting a spotlight on any individual, government official or political party.

6. His physical delivery emphasized audience connection.

Silveria is a good extemporaneous speaker, but if you watch carefully, you’ll see that he looked down and referenced his notes several times. When he did so, he used the “see, stop, say” technique, in which he stopped speaking when referring to his notes and only resumed when he looked back up and made eye contact with a member of the audience.

Doing so demonstrated the sincerity of his message and his mastery of his material. I f Silveria had to read his values, would they have come across as sincerely?

Brad Phillips is president of Phillips Media Relations. He is author of the Mr. Media Training Blog (where a version of this article originally appeared) and two books: “The Media Training Bible” and “101 Ways to Open a Speech.”

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