Tears while speaking: Lessons from Obama

The president, in talking about the heartbreaking school shootings in Connecticut, gave way to emotion. Here’s what to keep in mind the next time you face a difficult speaking event.

So many speakers—men and women—have asked me how they can avoid crying during a speech on a difficult or emotional topic that I’ve lost count over the years. As someone who has caught glimpses of herself crying, I can relate. No one thinks they look good when they cry, and staying “in control” seems important when you’re the speaker.

Putting yourself and your emotions into a speech is generally good advice, as audiences can better relate to a speaker on a sad topic who seems to reflect that emotion. (Think of how you’d view someone who spoke about the death of a loved one without showing any emotion.) But crying, once it begins, is hard to stop—like blushing.

Even if your mind doesn’t like it, the action is a natural response your body is making to the stress you feel. The result for speakers is an internal tug-of-war: You’re supposed to be up there representing and channeling the grief or trauma of others. But it’s that moment when you are most successful at summoning up the emotion and it starts leaking from your eyes that many speakers feel, “Whoops, I just let that go too far.”

For all speakers who feel that way, I give you President Obama, who teared up several times in his statement about the massacre of 20 children and six adults in a school shooting in Connecticut. It was the second-deadliest school shooting in the history of the United States, and a time when people look to their leaders to make sense of the action and bring the nation together.

Not speaking was not an option for the president, but tearing up was—six times in just under four minutes, by my count. The tears were understandable and appropriate, connecting him with people around the world who were still trying to make sense of the tragedy and also showing a connection between the president, far away in Washington, and the children who were killed.

“Whether it’s an elementary school in Newtown, or a shopping mall in Oregon, or a temple in Wisconsin, or a movie theater in Aurora, or a street corner in Chicago—these neighborhoods are our neighborhoods, and these children are our children,” he said, but it was his tears that forged the connection in that moment.

Some of you will be thinking, “But I’m not the president. I can’t get a pass if I cry when I speak,” and that often is particularly true for women when they run for public office. (Check out my all-in-one post on tears while speaking for more on the topic). I think most would agree that this type of occasion confers that pass on speakers, both men and women.

If you’re facing a difficult, potentially tearful, speaking event, there’s much you can learn from the president about how to handle it:

Don’t fight the feeling: Crying already indicates your body is feeling stress. Why increase that stress by trying to fight it? Instead, pause and breathe, and then think: “OK, I’m crying. That’s normal. Let me breathe and try to go on.” It’s a much more helpful approach than arguing with yourself about why you shouldn’t be doing what you can’t stop doing anyway. In this statement, for the most part, the president uses the moments when he tears up to wipe away the tear, pause, collect himself, and move on.

Remember that tears help you tell the story: “Tears don’t just telegraph our state of mind to others—they can also evoke strong emotions in the people who witness them,” notes this NPR story, which looks at the evolution of tears as a signal intended to evoke empathy in those around us. No words were needed for people around the world to understand and empathize with the president when he bowed his head and stopped speaking.

Stick to the sheet: Writing down what you want to say will help channel and express your feelings before you get behind the microphone, and once you’re up there, written remarks are a lifeline to which you can refer when it feels as if your feelings are running away with you. Note that the president refers to his written statement several times during delivery, not unusual for someone who delivers many statements in the course of a day. But in these types of situations, I’d recommend you avoid winging it; instead, give yourself a text anchor.

Use the pause: Too many speakers seem to think that fluent speaking means nonstop delivery. Pauses are important tools in everyday public speaking, but never more so than when your emotions are overwhelming. The president pauses several times in this statement, including one very long pause to collect himself. Pauses of this type can help keep you on track in a tough speaking task.

Use the lectern: The lectern, out of fashion in a world of TED talks, comes in handy at a time like this. Given that the president would be using one anyway, in this setting, he takes advantage of it, holding the sides or resting his hands folded on it. Being able to stand behind and lean on the lectern may be just what you need during an emotional talk.

Toss your remarks as needed: NBC News noted that the president had longer remarks prepared for delivery, but decided to forgo a full delivery and say what he felt he could get through; the published statement is “as delivered.” You, too, should feel free to skip parts of your prepared remarks if you don’t feel you can get through them—it’s the speaker’s prerogative, and most of the time, the audience won’t be able to tell if you don’t mention it.

Denise Graveline is the president of don’t get caught, a communications consultancy. She also writes The Eloquent Woman blog, where a version of this article originally ran.


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