The first lesson of public relations is to downplay expectations.
If you set the bar too high, you’re asking for trouble.
Yet that’s precisely what the White House did before President Barack Obama’s final State of the Union address. Aides had promised a “nontraditional address,” eschewing the usual laundry list of policy initiatives, focusing on an “overarching vision” and being among the shortest in modern history.
The pressure on the president was enormous.
How’d he do? Well, if this address had been delivered in my public speaking class, here’s what I would have concluded:
You never get a second chance to make a first impression. You have to start strong, perhaps with a compliment to bond with the audience and even a touch of humor.
Obama smiled broadly and started confidently, commending new House Speaker Paul Ryan for his “constructive approach” in passing a budget and pledging to sponsor “bipartisan priorities” like criminal justice reform and battling prescription drug abuse.
He then vowed to make this speech shorter, “’cause I know some of you are antsy to get back to Iowa.”
Compliment? Check. Common bond? Check. Humor? Check. A solid, if unspectacular, intro.
The thesis is the defining element of the speech.
It might set out a clear challenge to “ask not what your country can do for you but what you can do for your country,” or establish that “overarching vision” that Obama’s aides promised, like the vision of America as “a shining city upon a hill.”
Obama’s thesis concerned “the extraordinary change that is reshaping our lives.” Rather than laying down a challenge or posing the overarching vision promised, however, the president instead recounted the progressive changes he’s delivered over his term and asked: “Will we face the future with confidence in who we are, what we stand for and the incredible things we can do together?”
Poetic perhaps, but a bit meek, as defining elements go.
A speechwriter can use any number of oratorical patterns—from simple topical/subject organization to the more complex cause and effect, opposing argument order, etc.—to lead the audience through the speech’s major points.
Obama’s organization was topical—four simple questions about opportunity, innovation, safety and political comity—that will determine our collective future. He then examined the four main points, one by one, alluding to the strides we’ve made in each area under his leadership.
He also snuck in, under each point, elements of that dreaded laundry list—accelerating the transition to clean energy, raising the minimum wage, curing cancer, etc.—that we had been promised would be avoided.
The organization was simple, safe and easy to follow.
A good speaker—and this president has built his reputation as one of the best—can use rhetorical devices, as the poets put, to “leave the vivid air signed with their honor.”
In this speech, there was ample use of such devices:
- Rhetorical questions: “Will we respond to the changes of our time with fear, turning inward as a nation, and turning against each other as a people?”
- Rule of 3’s: “We’re every immigrant and entrepreneur from Boston to Austin to Silicon Valley racing to shape a better world.”
- Personalization: “It’s one of the few regrets of my presidency — that the rancor and suspicion between the parties has gotten worse instead of better.”
With the exception of a rousing conclusion, in which Obama invoked Dr. Martin Luther King, repeating the phrase, “I see,” to recognize the cops and teachers and assembly line workers and soldiers and other unsung heroes that are our nation—this address was largely lacking in the lofty language that has lifted previous Obama orations.
A scintillating speaker can help obscure the most mundane prose.
Obama’s delivery last night—loosey-goosey, conversational, that of a confident confidante—was the high point of the proceedings. He was at ease and in charge, comfortable in his own skin and in the position that he has grown into over seven years.
Although Obama’s final State of the Union address was far from a home run, it did touch all the appropriate rhetorical bases.
Still, it wasn’t memorable, didn’t deliver on its promises and, sadly, took 58 minutes and 40 seconds, the 16th-longest SOTU in the last 50 years.
Fraser Seitel has been a communications counselor, lecturer, TV commentator and teacher for 40 years, and is a prominent public relations author. He can be reached at email@example.com.