I recently saw the acclaimed film, “The King's Speech”, based on a true story about the challenges faced by King George VI of England, who suddenly ascends to the throne when his older brother Edward VIII abdicates his kingship to pursue his one true love interest—a still married (once divorced) American woman. Unfortunately, however, for his unprepared younger brother Albert—“Bertie” as he is known to his family and friends—history and fate have forced him to confront the childhood problem he has had of stammering when trying to speak his mind—especially when addressing the public.
In one particularly gut-wrenching scene, the would-be king chokes royally when delivering a message from his father, King George V, to an assembled stadium of thousands of loyal subjects. Albert begins to work on his “speech problem” with an unorthodox therapist by the name of Lionel Logue who goes on to coach King George VI through some of the most important speeches ever delivered during World War II.
As an inspirational speaker and speech writer myself, this compelling narrative got me thinking about our own fearless leader, President Barack Obama, and the State of the Union address he will deliver to the nation and the world.
And just as “Bertie” suffered from a communications challenge at a most difficult and trying time in world history, many believe that “Barry” is also hobbled by a “speech problem” that ‘s afflicted him since moving into 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.
As a young, vibrant United States Senator, Barack Obama used a gift of communication unseen in American politics since President Ronald Reagan left the national stage some twenty years ago. When Candidate Obama pursued the highest office in the land, he often used lofty rhetoric, soaring oratory and symbolic imagery that captured both the imagination of the American people and the presidency of the United States with 365 electoral votes. Since then, though, many believe that Obama has lost the voice that had endeared him to millions during the magic of the 2008 campaign. To add insult to injury, others have even called him “tone deaf” to the will of the majority, a veritable death knell for any elected official. With rising poll numbers, however, and a string of recent legislative victories that have produced several weeks of good press, it would be premature, at best, to count this president out of the race to 2012.
The president's recent successes, however, have helped to reassure his standing with the public, while bolstering his political prospects for the future. Moreover, with his impending speech to the nation, President Obama has, once again, positioned himself as a political phoenix “rising from the ashes”—that is, if he can get his mojo back with this all-important address.
To that end, were I in the position of coaching him through this speech, as Lionel Logue was privileged to do with King George VI, I would admonish President Obama to remember these three key points as he ambles up to the podium on the floor of the U.S. House of Representatives.
Mr. President, as you prepare to address the nation at a time of rising unemployment, consumer confidence at historic lows, and your political opponents doubting your very resolve to stare down evil where you find it, remember that your audience (which includes billions of people around the world), expects you to “tell the truth, shame the devil, and let the chips fall where they may.” As such, you should start your speech by laying out, very clearly, what your aims are for the nation. Be concise and unequivocal with regard to the message you would like to be remembered long after the history books are written. Whether it's the issue of jobs, the economy, bipartisanship in Congress, or war around the world, be up front about what you want the American people to consider and don't back down from your positions. You, sir, are the President of the United States, and the world's greatest bully pulpit belongs to you—so use it!
As leader of the free world, the bulk of your State of the Union Address should deal with the broad themes that you laid out both during your campaign as well as your time in office. Just as importantly, this is precisely where you should begin to reemploy some of the same oratorical genius we all had a chance to see and experience during your historic run for office. Use your time at the speaker's well to harken the nation back to an era where we believed that anything was possible for an America that committed itself to a goal. Just as President John F. Kennedy used his special address to Congress to marshal national support to send a man to the moon and bring him safely back to the earth, you too, Mr. President, have the opportunity to rally the country around an agenda that aims to leave for our children a more prosperous nation than the one that we have inherited. Please, Sir, address the looming deficit crisis that portends to sink the ship of state if we don't get a handle on it, and fast! No longer can we continue to pile up unsustainable debt that will lead to future generations of Americans being born in perpetual servitude to our creditors. Furthermore, the American people would love to hear from you a realistic plan to get those who want a job back to work, helping them to restore the honor and dignity that comes with an honest day's labor. After all, if millions of people remain jobless come November 2012, you may very well find yourself unemployed the following January.
One of the greatest lessons to be learned when communicating to others is the importance of “repetition, repetition, repetition.” Famed American author and businessman, W. Clement Stone, once observed: “You affect the subconscious mind by verbal repetition.” Mr. President, consider the very real fact that most people have to hear a message many times over before it sinks into their psyche. Instead of speaking in the long-handed, professorial style in which we have been accustomed to hearing from you, try short, pithy phrases that underscore the central thesis of your speech. And then, after you have sufficiently driven home the messages you want us to take away from your address, tell us again... and again... and again!
And finally, Mr. President, as you set your writing pen down and prepare to pick up a microphone, never forget the unique role that only you can play in uniting the nation as one—through the power of the spoken word. In doing so, you will be more than prepared to be the recipient of the greatest introduction known to humankind: “Mr. Speaker...The President of the United States!”
Elvin J. Dowling is the former Chief of Staff for the National Urban League. An independent who's been both a Republican and Democrat, he serves as chairman of the Destined for Greatness Foundation. He also writes at his website ArchitectOfChange.com and on Twitter.