President Obama faced the task of giving the annual report to the nation's shareholders in the 2011 State of the Union Address on Tuesday evening. He addressed that task carefully, with his usual aplomb, but with a lack of innovation in structure or delivery that means the speech will soon be forgotten.
It's essentially the problem faced by most CEOs of large organizations. How do you report on all the multifarious activities of the firm in the past year without resorting to a laundry list or information dump that will inevitably turn tedious and undercut one of the very goals of the talk: to establish that the state of the organization is strong, purposeful, and headed in the right direction? A laundry list lacks direction. An information dump inevitably ends up seeming desperate, because you send the implicit message that you don't know where to stop.
So what do you talk about? Here are five quick tips for accomplishing this chore with style and purpose — tips that President Obama would be well-advised to follow next time.
1. Focus ruthlessly. Get past the notion that you have to say everything. Speeches are not an effective way to cover lots of information. Instead, issue a written report at the same time that covers it all, and focus on highlights in the speech. That will make for both effective public speaking and information dissemination.
2. Establish a story and stick to it. The best aspect of the President's speech was that he did start a story line near the beginning of the talk — he told us a Stranger in a Strange Land story:
"Many people watching tonight can probably remember a time when finding a good job meant showing up at a nearby factory or a business downtown ... That world has changed ... The rules have changed. In a single generation, revolutions in technology have transformed the way we live, work and do business. Steel mills that once needed 1,000 workers can now do the same work with 100. Today, just about any company can set up shop, hire workers, and sell their products wherever there's an Internet connection."
The President then talked about three main responses America needs to make to this strange new world, and his ideas for each: innovation, education, and infrastructure. So far so good. Had he ended there, the speech would have been compelling, whether or not you agree with the policies. The problem then came when the pressures of politics pushed the President to include a bunch of other ideas in no particular order. I know how this works; I wrote several State of the Commonwealth addresses when I was speechwriter for the governor of Virginia. Everyone starts out with good intentions, but then each branch of the government lobbies for a mention, and you end up making too many compromises.
After the three big ideas, the President covered tax loopholes, trade, regulations, health care, the deficit, tax simplification, the reorganization of government, foreign affairs, and the armed forces, before circling back to where he began: our contentious democracy. That's when a potentially good speech turned into a laundry list.
3. Avoid insider' references. The speech began and ended with references to bipartisanship, and nice friendly mentions of the new speaker, John Boehner. Good for internal governmental relations, but too insider for the American public, who don't care whether or not people in government like each other. What we care about is whether or not they can work together. When it comes to government, we want the cheapest possible government that actually works. Cut the local references.
4. Begin in the middle. The speech only got going after the polite beginning nod to Speaker Boehner, the compassionate mention of Representative Giffords, the salute to a vigorous democracy, and a statement about jobs. All of that is empty rhetoric. The speech really begins with the "Many people watching tonight..." line and that's where President Obama should have started.
You can tell when rhetoric is empty — and therefore should be cut — because it would never be possible to say the alternative. Could a president begin by insulting the Speaker, 'dissing' a tragically ailing representative, trashing the democratic process, or coming out against jobs? Of course not. Therefore, nothing is being said. Speeches are much more interesting for the audience when they dispense with the polite nothings and get right to the meat.
5. Leave them wanting more. When a chief executive first walks into the room, we're thrilled, because his or her importance rubs off on everyone there. When the CEO begins talking, we're all ears, and it's an extraordinary opportunity for that executive to influence our thinking and behavior. But when the same executive goes on too long, the result is catastrophic for the dignity and effectiveness of both the office and the person. President Obama and his speechwriters should have resisted the internal political pressures and ended in half the time. The moment would have stayed electric. The 2011 State of the Union was an opportunity lost to transform the dialogue. It is an opportunity that every CEO has — and either squanders or seizes — to make history.