Whether you love President Donald Trump or hate him, his first State of the Union Speech on Tuesday was a powerful reminder of a very valuable lesson for any public speaker: If you truly want to make a point, take the focus off yourself and tell your audience a story about someone who might be just like themselves.
Trump's storytelling skills were on full display in his 80-minute-long speech, one of the longest State of the Union addresses on record. As always, some of the speech was a review of the accomplishments claimed for his first year in office (which brought out the fact-checkers, as such claims often do). And some of it was about the initiatives he hopes to enact in the near future, such as a $1.5 trillion bill to improve America's infrastructure and the compromise immigration measure he wants Congress to approve.
But quite a lot of the speech was taken up with stories, heartfelt and concisely told, of ordinary people doing extraordinary things. The subjects of his stories all were present for the speech and he pointed each of them out as he talked about them, often asking them to stand and be acknowledged.
Telling ordinary people's stories and then pointing them out in the audience is a staple of political speeches, but it's usually done just a couple of times, toward the beginning of the speech. In his first State of the Union, Trump did something he doesn't often do: He took the focus off himself and instead told the stories of a dozen people (11 Americans and one North Korean) as a beautiful way to illustrate his various points. For me, anyhow, these stories were the most memorable parts of the State of the Union speech. Here are the three most compelling:
1. 12-year-old Preston Sharp helps get 40,000 flags (and counting) onto veterans' graves.
From the State of the Union address:
"Here tonight is Preston Sharp, a 12-year-old boy from Redding, California, who noticed that veterans' graves were not marked with flags on Veterans Day. He decided to change that, and started a movement that has now placed 40,000 flags at the graves of our great heroes."
It sounds like an amazing story, and it is. According to Sharp's GoFundMe page (apparently created by his mother), it all began on Veteran's Day 2015, when Sharp visited a cemetery in Redding, California, where his grandfather, a Navy veteran, is buried. Sharp brought a flag and flower to place on the grave but was sad to see that other veterans' graves were unadorned. When he complained to his mom, she suggested he try to do something about it, so he set a goal to put a flag and flower on every veteran's grave in that cemetery. Word of the project spread, and with help from many others, soon that initial goal was realized.
Sharp set larger and larger goals, first to honor every veteran in Redding, then the entire county, then a growing list of nearby counties. He continued expanding as each goal was met, so that he now hopes to honor veterans in all 50 states. Before the State of the Union, he had raised more than $40,000 and organized placement of 40,000 flags and artificial red carnations at cemeteries around the U.S. In the few hours since Trump's speech, many more donations are flowing in. I bet Sharp gets to widen his goals even more.
2. Ryan and Rebecca Holets adopt a heroin addict's baby.
From the State of the Union address:
"Ryan Holets is 27 years old, and an officer with the Albuquerque Police Department. He is here tonight with his wife, Rebecca. Last year, Ryan was on duty when he saw a pregnant, homeless woman preparing to inject heroin. When Ryan told her she was going to harm her unborn child, she began to weep. She told him she did not know where to turn, but badly wanted a safe home for her baby.
"In that moment, Ryan said he felt God speak to him: 'You will do it--because you can.' He took out a picture of his wife and their four kids. Then, he went home to tell his wife, Rebecca. In an instant, she agreed to adopt. The Holets named their new daughter Hope."
Rebecca Holets was holding Hope, wrapped in a bright pink blanket, during the State of the Union speech. The couple already had four other children, two of whom also accompanied them to Washington for the speech. At the time of Ryan Holets's encounter with Hope's biological mother, their youngest was only 10 months old. They had talked about adopting a child in a year or two, so Ryan's desire to adopt Hope came as a surprise to Rebecca. But he felt God had called him to do it and she was immediately on board.
The couple was in the hospital when Hope was born--one month early and needing treatment for heroin withdrawal. She seems to be doing well now, although any effects of her early heroin exposure won't be fully clear until she's a bit older. For now, the Holetses are also trying to help Hope's biological mother and her partner get into rehab.
3. Amputee Ji Seong-ho escapes North Korea on crutches and crosses China to gain freedom in South Korea.
From the State of the Union address:
"In 1996, Seong-ho was a starving boy in North Korea. One day, he tried to steal coal from a railroad car to barter for a few scraps of food. In the process, he passed out on the train tracks, exhausted from hunger. He woke up as a train ran over his limbs. He then endured multiple amputations without anything to dull the pain. His brother and sister gave what little food they had to help him recover and ate dirt themselves--permanently stunting their own growth. Later, he was tortured by North Korean authorities after returning from a brief visit to China. His tormentors wanted to know if he had met any Christians. He had--and he resolved to be free.
"Seong-ho traveled thousands of miles on crutches across China and Southeast Asia to freedom. Most of his family followed. His father was caught trying to escape, and was tortured to death.
"Today, he lives in Seoul, where he rescues other defectors, and broadcasts into North Korea what the regime fears the most--the truth."
Ji's father had been a loyal Communist party supporter, but turned against the party after he was unable to get adequate care for his son, according to Ji Seong-ho's Wikipedia page. Perhaps most disturbingly, Ji told the Voice of America that upon returning from his first crossing into China, North Korean border guards were harder on him than the others he was traveling with. "They told me that because I am disabled I brought shame to North Korea and that someone with only one leg should stay home," he said.
After telling Ji's story, Trump went on to say: "Today he has a new leg, but Seong-ho, I understand you still keep those crutches as a reminder of how far you have come. Your great sacrifice is an inspiration to us all." In response, Ji raised his crutches in his one good hand and held them aloft triumphantly.
It was the speech's most unforgettable moment. For an American audience, it was a useful reminder of the wealth and freedoms and privileges we often forget to be thankful for. It made a political point, that Kim Jong-Un's regime in North Korea is tyrannical and cruel. But mostly, it was a perfect illustration of how a great story, told with heart, can be a powerful way to capture your listeners' attention, and their emotions as well.