Five Secrets to Nailing the Most Important Speech of Your Life

President Obama State of the Union public speaking tips

As President Barack Obama prepares to deliver his final State of the Union (SOTU) address, he will face an international audience of supporters and detractors, understanding that the speech has potential to lay the foundation for his legacy. No pressure, right?

While most of us will never speak under those exact circumstances, there will be times in our careers when one speech or presentation could change everything. As a public speaking counselor, I’ve seen that kind of gravity take down even the most experienced leaders.

High-stakes speakers tend to over-prepare — and in the wrong ways. They bury themselves under facts and figures, wed themselves to a tight script, cling to a lectern and plan every gesture. The reason that TED Talks have become so popular is that they hit all the sweet spots of a good speech — 1) brevity, 2) interest, 3) clarity, 4) connection and 5) impact.

Let’s explore these from an audience member’s perspective.

1) Help! My brain is full! (brevity) — There is a place for a 60-minute plenary, but a very, very small place. In most instances, speeches are best delivered in 15 minutes or less. Even when the content is engaging, audience members can’t process that much information. As they struggle to connect and absorb messages, their anxiety quietly increases. Who do they unintentionally blame for that? Yep. You.

2) Do you think anyone will notice if I check my phone? (interest) — There’s a decent chance that your audience doesn’t really care about what you’re going to say. Unless you are a highly regarded, famous-type person, audience members are probably watching you as part of a larger plenary program, a corporate meeting or some other obligatory gathering. That means you need to speak in a language they understand and get their attention in the first 10 seconds of your speech.

Think about your audience’s universal experience as professionals, family members or just human beings, and find a way to wrap your points around that story or theme. How can you weave a tale about your 6-year-old into a larger lesson? Is it possible to shroud your message in a study of the characters from Star Wars?

3) I’m not following you. (clarity) — Have you ever been on a long highway and suddenly wondered if you’ve missed your exit? You sweat the seemingly endless stretch of signlessness, worrying about how many dozens of miles you’ve gone out of your way. You can keep your audience engaged and worry-free if you include similar thematic guideposts throughout your speech. “Listicles” have become popular for a reason.

Audiences feel better when they know where you’re taking them. From the start of your talk, use numbers, steps, stages or other creative ways to make sure they’re still following along. Also, vary your pacing. In some sections, slow way down and lower your voice for impact; in others, increase the intensity of your message by speeding up your delivery like a freight train.

4) Help me help you. (connection) — You know those rules about public speaking — make eye contact; use gestures, etc.? Forget them. Effective speeches aren’t about rules; they’re about sharing a connection with the audience. Eye contact isn’t something to check off your speaking list — it’s a key tool for establishing that emotional link. Pick someone out of the audience and speak only to that individual for about 15 seconds. Notice what happens.

The person will automatically nod or smile. So will the two or three people in the surrounding seats. And the bonus is that little connection also boosts YOUR confidence. You’ve made the audience a tool for your success. A few other tips? Come out from behind the lectern and give the audience your whole self. Dump the script and memorize your points. Find a few places to smile. As your connection deepens, you will stop feeling nervous and naked and start emanating the growing energy in the room.

5) OK, but what do you want me to do? (impact) — Speeches should never be given out of obligation. If audience members are silently wondering how much you got paid for your speech, you’ve failed. From the beginning, your energy and messaging should begin making a case for your ask. Whether you want them to give emotion, thought, time or even money, you need to spell it out.

President Obama is expected to give his shortest-ever SOTU address tonight — and you’re in the audience. Take note of how many other successful speaking secrets he puts into practice, and keep them in mind when you’re the one in the hot seat.