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What Michelle Obama can teach us about making a great speech

Speaking in public: do you love it or hate it?

Crazily enough there is a lot to it. But few of us put resources into it.

As professionals and business people, you can learn to do it well. Truly! Even if you fear it today you can love it tomorrow.

We might think people who are great at speaking just ‘wing it' but that usually isn’t so.

Let's start with Michelle Obama.

What did it take to help make Michelle Obama a world-class speaker? The resources of the White House, the U.S Democratic Party and the Obama campaign; that is what it took. 

Why did she do it? To make an impact on issues important to her. She didn't want to be an invisible First Lady.

Reading Michelle Obama’s biography has given me a great insight into the resources, planning and strategy that supported her great communication and speaking successes.

This effort was well planned and strategic.

To many of us, Michelle Obama seems like a natural communicator. She does it with ease it appears. She is feisty, forthright, engaging and funny. She gets the tone right from a keynote at the United Nations to an appearance on the Ellen DeGeneres show.

Her outfits also look great. She must have a fabulous fashion sense we think.

Did you see her Carpool Karaoke with James Corden? She sang and grooved to Stevie Wonder and Beyoncé. It's been watched 68 million times. (check the link below if you haven't seen it already)

Huge planning went into every element of that filming and execution. It was not just a fun ‘off the cuff’ event. (Of course, we know that, right?)

When Michelle Obama speaks it is part of a strategic campaign. The Karaoke appearance was about promoting education for girls and women. It was linked to the wider Obama education agenda.

She talks in the book about Carpool Karaoke. She had learnt, after many years, she said 'how to make a little noise for a cause.' So even though she was nervous about singing she did it and knew it would be worth it.

She practiced her karaoke session with her team for weeks, memorising every beat of every song. The goal she said, ‘was to have it look fun and light but behind it, as always, was work and a larger purpose – to keep connecting people with the issue.’

While in the White House she gave official speeches as U.S First Lady, but only after a team worked over the strategy and content with her and she rehearsed many times over, seeking the right tone, content and vibe. This helped her find her own voice and have the confidence to push issues important to her.

It all began as the Obama campaign for the Democratic nomination started. She would travel, speaking at events Barack Obama could not get to. She wasn’t fond of politics but wanted to support the campaign. Early on, she had a small team but no speechwriter and there was no strategy about what she said. She spoke off-the-cuff about who she was and what Barack Obama believed in. She was warm and friendly. It worked well for a while. People liked it.

But then she ran into trouble.

There was an early campaign crisis in the run-up to the Iowa primaries and newspaper stories appeared depicting Michelle Obama as angry and unpatriotic.

She was shocked and hurt by the coverage. In a meeting with Obama strategist David Axelrod, she watched her speeches with the sound down. When talking about complex subjects like inequality in education and healthcare she was forceful, but, she concluded her body language was off-putting and her manner too ‘serious and severe'.

She said ‘I could see how the opposition had managed to dice up these images and feed me to the public as some sort of pissed-off harpy.'

She had no strategic help nor any coaching up until then. No one advised her on what to say. To David Axelrod, she said: why didn't you guys talk to me about this sooner? Focused on the Barack Obama campaign they didn't see this coming he said. It wasn't a problem until it was. It was a turning point.

From then on, she demanded and was supported like a candidate if she was expected to give a speech. That meant speech writers and a more strategic approach to communications. It meant a wardrobe consultant and by the time she was in the White House a hair and makeup artist for every appearance.

So how does this apply to business people and professionals who are not speaking to audiences the size Michelle Obama faced nor involved in politics nor subject to political and media scrutiny?

The fact is: speaking and making a presentation or address is a strategic opportunity to win support and increase your influence. You can promote your ideas and engage with stakeholders. You can win them over or if you need to, defend your ground.

Here are some ideas about where to start.

  • Speaking success is important. Put resources into it. If your business, organisation or sector faces a crisis you will need to speak and speak well.

  • Don't leave it until it is too late to examine how you speak about your business or organisation or projects.

  • Plan your speaking.

  • Take a strategic approach and examine what your goal is.

  • Design speaking and communication points based on that goal.

  • Practice, refine and seek input from others when designing a speech. After a speech review it and improve it for next time. Consider it a work in progress.

At some point, all CEOs, leaders and executives need to speak.

Your words have to be convincing, authentic, strategic and have an impact.

Some people are great at it, others not so much.

No one (or very few) senior people just 'wing it'. Speaking is too important for that.

Catherine McGrath is a strategic communications consultant working with businesses, public sector organisations and professionals. She delivers speaking, presentation and media training Australia wide. She spent 30 years as a leading Australian political and international television correspondent before starting Catherine McGrath Media


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