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What is the One Secret to an Effective Speech? Be Yourself!

Written by MO.com Subject Matter Resource John Cavanaugh

Last week I was in Charlotte, North Carolina as a special guest for the important meetings that culminated in the nomination of Vice President Biden and President Obama for a second term in office. While there were many outstanding presentations given at this particular convention, three speeches clearly resonated with the audience inside Time Warner arena. So what was the one key to their effectiveness? The secret was the authenticity each featured speaker communicated from the stage.

First Lady Michelle Obama

Being the spouse or family member of a public figure always presents an added degree of difficulty to public engagements. But when you are married to a President of the United States, widely regarded as a highly skilled orator, expectations tend to be even greater leading up to a major address before an audience of 20,000 people in the hall and millions more on television.

The First Lady capitalized on her unique strengths and delivered one of the best convention addresses since Senator Edward M. Kennedy’s “The Dream Shall Never Die” speech in 1980. In an age of extreme polarization and severe cynicism about our government, Mrs. Obama consistently ranks as one of our more popular leaders. Perhaps this is because she is not seen as a typical politician and she has devoted herself to non partisan causes such as children’s health and support for military families.

By recounting the struggles of her own family growing up, the First Lady established a common bond with her listeners. By providing us with insights from her special vantage point within the White House, she gave us a welcome respite to the personal attacks and white hot rhetoric that has become standard operating procedure in the 2012 campaign.

Most importantly, by personally defining herself as “Mom-in-Chief” throughout the speech, she brought everyone into a familiar family conversation that thankfully transcended politics.

San Antonio Mayor Julian Castro

For Mayor Castro, the degree of difficulty for his address might have been even higher than the First Lady’s presentation. As the first Latino chosen to keynote a major party convention, the pressure must have been enormous. However, expectations to live up to the 2004 convention speech that propelled then State Senator Barack Obama into the national spotlight, raised the pole vault beyond what seemed possible.

Aided by a warm introduction by his twin brother, Mayor Castro cleared the bar with ease. He also connected to the audience by sharing his family struggles and thanking his mother for her sacrifices. The power of his biography truly inspired the delegates and guests in the arena. By providing a positive personal story, we again graciously left the realm of today’s attack politics.

President Bill Clinton

One would think that President Clinton might have had the easiest job of all. A former commander-in-chief and experienced speaker, how could anything go possibly go wrong for him in a new South city? Again, sky high expectations probably made this widely anticipated speech the most difficult of all.

The former President, essentially a political rival just four short years ago, had the unenviable task of making the economic case to “renew Mr. Obama’s contract” to lead a nation still reeling from the Great Recession.

Of course, President Clinton did have the advantage of “preaching to the choir”. Like Michelle Obama, he remains a popular figure among the American people. However, he sometimes strays off message and speaks too long.

While he did exceed his allotted time in Charlotte, the President’s folksy address and charismatic oratory literally rocked the house from the floor to the rafters. Again, authenticity was the key to his success. He spoke from experience and effectively ad libbed when necessary.

As these three speeches now fade into history, we all can remember and employ the same secret to delivering an effective speech – Just be yourself!


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