Powell, Giuliani, Montana, Forbes, L. Bush & Obama: Great Speakers, Great Motivators, Great Leaders

Last Wednesday, I spent most of my day at a big sports arena, watching the likes of Joe Montana, Colin Powell, Rudy Giuliani, Laura Bush, and Steve Forbes each stand up and deliver a motivational speech. Then, that evening, President Obama gave his much awaited address on health reform to a joint session of Congress. It was a very good day. (Watch my video on the topic.)

I didn't know what to expect at the sports arena. Having only seen most of them in the context of politics or policy, I was expecting more of the same. I didn't get it. Instead, each one of these icons stood up to motivate the crowd. There was no overt political message. 

This was a big audience — the XL Center in Hartford was packed (it's a sports arena). The stage was positioned in the middle of the arena floor and looked like a boxing ring without the ropes. The men used the entire stage, walking around it, making sure to spend time with all 360 degrees of audience. Some used a handheld mic, others a lapel mic and still others a headset. The handheld worked best, picking up the deeper and warmer tones of the voice. The least effective was the lapel mic because it doesn't follow the mouth and can therefore lose volume when the speaker's head turns away.

They all told lots of stories — personal stories from their personal and professional lives. Stories of growing up, family stories, war stories. All the stories had a point and all were very entertaining and, more often than not, funny.  What was really striking, though, was the extent of their physical animation as they were telling their stories; they bent down, reached up, twisted from side to side. Their gestures were really big. Their stories were so much more effective as a result.

Laura Bush stood at a podium. I half expected it to rotate as she was speaking. She read from a script. As a result, she was not as effective as the others, but she was still good. She was warm and very funny. She also told stories that were great to hear about her life with her uniquely political family, about her daughters and about George. Laura Bush has also learned to capitalize on her presence, not only as a former first lady, but as someone who knows who she is and is comfortable with it. She looked great, by the way. They all did.

Later on, President Obama delivered his health reform speech. This was the best speech he has ever given. Obama knew the stakes were high, he knew he had a lot to overcome and he did. 

So many things worked well: his voice, his posture, gestures and general countenance. It was also very well-written and rehearsed. We know he reads his remarks from a teleprompter. The rhythm was very tight. Obama, too, told several stories designed to support his points and make them come alive. There was an emotional component present that had gone missing since he was elected. This helped him be very persuasive. I believe his speech changed the tenor of the debate and, if he and his allies play their cards right, will help them to get the bill they want passed.

All these speakers are different, but all are successful in his or her own way. They are all leaders who recognize that oral presentation or public speaking is a leadership skill.

Here are the takeaways:

  • Develop your own unique style. You have one.
  • Take and command the stage like you own it.
  • Tell a lot of stories.
  • Make your stories come alive by moving your body and your hands. Make them big.

It was a very good day.

Ruth Sherman Associates LLC / High Stakes Communication / www.ruthsherman.com 

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