As a corporate communications professional, I’ve long been fascinated by the State of the Union (SOTU) address. Sure, I’m as interested in the sitting President’s track record and agenda as the next citizen. However, the politics of these events can be fairly predictable. What’s much more fascinating to me are the rhetorical devices and public speaking techniques that the Presidents put to use in these well-orchestrated addresses. Yesterday’s SOTU address was no exception. In fact, given the business background of our sitting President of the United States (POTUS), I couldn’t help but notice his approach to the speech holds a few important keys to success. So if we put all the policy-talk aside and leave the alternative fact-checking to happen elsewhere, here are four important life lessons that can help professionals on both sides of the aisle achieve success based on my observations of the President’s SOTU address.
1. Advocate For Yourself. If you watched the SOTU broadcast, you may have noticed that the President repeatedly applauded his own accomplishments. While this is highly unusual behavior for a sitting POTUS during this kind of address (most just stand there magnanimously and let the other in the room do the clapping for them for dramatic effect), we must remember, this is not a business-as-usual kind of POTUS. It’s also important to remember that his unique ability to applaud himself is part of the appeal he has with his base. It could be argued that his self-confidence is his most impressive credential. He exudes, screams and shouts it at all times and in everything he does. And you should too. This doesn’t mean you should act like the sun rises and sets only for you, or that you’re beyond all reproach, however. Most of us couldn’t get away with that. What it means is, it’s okay to be like our 45th President and clap for yourself once in a while. Well, maybe not every 3 – 5 minutes like he did in his SOTU speech. But it is important to regularly take time out to reflect on and celebrate your successes along the way. Remember, if you don’t pat yourself on the back, no one else will.
2. Don’t Forget Your Skutniks. It’s rare that an individual’s name that becomes synonymous with an artful maneuver like the Hamill Camel, Korbut Flip or the Fosbury Flop. But, it can happen when the President invites you to sit in the gallery at a SOTU address and then shouts out your act of heroism during his speech. Such was the case with Lenny Skutnik, a former Congressional Budget Office employee who bravely risked his own life to rescue a passenger in plane crash. He became the first in what is now a long-standing tradition of people invited to attend a SOTU as the guest of the sitting POTUS, sitting the gallery and often, referred to in the President’s speech. More generally, a ‘Skutnik’ is a rhetorical device in which a speaker uses “human props” to connect with an audience. The use of the device is one of many tactics that helped to establish President Ronald Regan as ‘the Great Communicator’. It’s also become a widely used tactic for other Presidents, leaders and speakers looking to humanize themselves or a difficult message in front of a crowd. At his first SOTU address, POTUS 45 used the device more than any other President in history. His proficiency and need to do so can be debated along party lines elsewhere. However, when you’re trying to communicate in a persuasive manner that tugs at the heart and mind, Skutniks work. Just think about your favorite seasoned married couple. Chances are your heart has melted when you’ve been in their company and heard one share a story about how the other stood by them through a difficult time or recall that moment when they knew their mate was “the one”. Or, perhaps you’ve seen a leader at work tell an inspiring story about a colleague in the room who went above and beyond to help a customer. The simple act of recognizing another in this manner might have made you see that leader in a more positive light. That’s the power of the Skutnik. They give you the chance to edify others for their heroic contributions to the world that you share and, in the process, they help others see your heart.
3. Make Sure Your Squad Is Unified. Aside from POTUS 45 repeatedly clapping for himself throughout his speech, I was struck by how partisan the clapping was in the rest of the room. Aside from a few moments during which our troops and other American heroes were given shout outs, the room was literally divided down the physical and political aisle when it came to applauding the President’s remarks. Notably, every time the President paused for dramatic effect, every GOP representative present stood and generously applauded as if on cue. In layman’s term, POTUS had his squad that night and they were completely unified. Even GOP party members whose family members he insulted during the campaign fell in line. (I was going to say “fell into formation” but I don’t want any trouble!) All squabbles, personal feelings and disagreements were put aside once they entered the House Chamber and the cameras were tuned on, as the entire party stood by their man like a Tammy Wynette song. The Dems could learn a lot from that performance, especially if Donna Bazile’s book has any merit. The rest of us should also remember that when it comes to our own pursuit of success, you cannot and should not go it alone – you need a team, mentors, sponsors and coaches. And importantly, you need to show the world you can keep the main thing and main thing and work towards the greater good even when you don’t feel all warm and fuzzy about everyone on the team.
4. Be Yourself. Many of who watched the SOTU address were waiting for POTUS 45 to do what he does best in public forums – go off script! Many of us were surprised, and maybe even a bit disappointed, that he stuck to the script for the greater part of 80 minutes. If you were, perhaps you got the impression that he seemed a bit stilted or subdued compared to how we’re used to seeing him. While his off-the-cuff, unscripted remarks are often fodder for Twitter wars, hash tag debates and late night talk show monologues, they reflect the leader of the free world’s most authentic and unfiltered self. This is what his base loves him for and what his opponents love to hate about him. Whether you’re a faithful member of his base or not, we can all agree POTUS 45 is who he is no matter where he is. Said another way, he’s not one to change himself for other and it shows in his extemporaneous communications. The lesson here is simple. Take a page from this book of POTUS and practice being your authentic self, no matter the situation. It could take you all the way to the White House!
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