Why does the State of the Union always suck? For the same reason your speeches usually do

Every year the State of the Union Address is the same story. Ahead of it, all the pundits say the president has to say something—stay the course, ignore the doubters, things will get better if you just follow me—and instead, he says everything, and we remember none of it at all.

Don’t laugh: The same thing happens with the audiences you speak to. Why? Because, like the president, you feel compelled to share your broad vision. You want to get across your Three Big Ideas on the Future. But when has an audience member’s spouse ever asked, “What was the speech about, honey?” And the answer comes back, “Well, I’ll tell you, there were three big ideas. First …”


A speech that’s going to be remembered must be one idea: one intellectually challenging, emotionally resonant idea that the audience senses immediately could have only been delivered by this person at this moment in these words.

That’s a tall order. And it’s taller than it used to be.

Leaders used to be able to justify a laundry-list speech. A speech used to be an efficient way to share information. “Everyone gather round, I’ve got a few things I need to say.”

Then came the Gutenberg Press. Then radio. Then TV. Then the Internet. Then social media. Now, the idea of having several hundred people flock to sit in a single room in a distant place to listen silently to another human being speak—this is such a colossally inefficient form of communication that it’s unconscionable to waste it with an unfocused address that no one will remember.

A speech is a precious opportunity for a leader to look an audience in the eyeballs and tell them something so true that it bonds the audience to the leader, and to one another. A speech is succeeding in its unique way not when the audience is gazing admiringly at the speaker, but when audience members are exchanging significant looks with one another. A speech is essentially a tribal experience—a chance for your audience to see what you look like and hear what you sound like when you explain your essential idea.

You want to tell the people everything they need to know about your vision? Send them a PowerPoint deck, email them a white paper, refer them to your blog. You want to tell them something they’ll remember, and something that will change the way they feel or behave? Tell them the one single thing they need to know: About you, and about them—and about the dream you all have in common.

And if your audience doesn’t ultimately share your same dream? I’d suggest you should find another audience to talk to, that does—or that can be made to.

Don’t give speeches that sound like the SOTU. Give speeches that sound like you.

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