Former first lady Michelle Obama deserves high marks for her speech at the virtual 2020 Democratic Convention on Monday night.
Although political speeches always have their supporters and critics, as a communication expert who has worked with CEOs and politicians from both parties, I believe we can learn public-speaking skills from speeches that are well-written and expertly presented.
Obama's 18-minute speech stood out in three ways: writing, delivery, and gestures.
It's easier to deliver a strong presentation if you start with solid writing.
One technique in the writer's toolkit is to vary the length of sentences. A long sentence sets up a short one or, in the following example from Obama's speech, a short sentence sets up a longer one.
"The job is hard. It requires clear-headed judgment, a mastery of complex and competing issues, a devotion to facts and history, a moral compass, and an ability to listen--and an abiding belief that each of the 330,000,000 lives in this country has meaning and worth."
Obama also used contrast within sentences. This, too, is a rhetorical technique that makes an idea interstesting and memorable. For example:
"A president's words have the power to move markets. They can start wars or broker peace. They can summon our better angels or awaken our worst instincts."
Finally, Obama used metaphorical langauge to express an abstract idea in familiar language.
"Going high means unlocking the shackles of lies and mistrust with the only thing that can truly set us free: the cold hard truth."
Metaphor, contrast, and sentence length are essential elements of good writing that you can use to sharpen your next presentation.
Great speakers highlight key words by changing the volume of the word, pausing before or after it, or stretching it out by slowing the delivery of each syllable. Obama tends to elongate or stretch out the words she wants to emphasize.
For example, when she said, "It pains me to see so many people hurting," Obama slowed down and stretched out the word "pains."
Near the end of Obama's speech, she began to emphasize more words in a row, which gives the rising action a sense of urgency. With 90 seconds left, Obama said:
"This is who we still are: compassionate, resilient, decent people whose fortunes are bound up with one another."
Pay attention the delivery of words. Punch key words for impact.
Obama doesn't flail her hands or arms in a random way. Her gestures are clear and specific.
One gesture that she used multiple times was bringing her hand to her heart. This is a sign of empathy that many people do naturally when talking about an issue that is, well, close to their heart.
For example, as mother of two girls, it may have been natural for Obama to raise her hands to her heart when she said, "Too many communities have been left in the lurch to grapple with whether and how to open our schools safely."
I don't recommend that speakers focus too closely on the gestures they make because it can come across as canned or contrived. I do point out, however, that when you communicate ideas that you care deeply about, your hands will naturally follow your words. Let them.