Every year policy wonks around the country gleefully tune in to the State of the Union. It’s a big deal in Washington—as it should be. Our president, before congress, lays out his bold vision for the country. If the White House Correspondents’ Dinner is nerd prom, the State of the Union is the Super Bowl, and just like the Super Bowl, its ending is sure to disappoint at least half the country.
That might explain why over 50% of Americans said they planned to skip the speech entirely, with 45% saying it’s because the timing of the speech, 9:00 p.m., interfered with their preferred TV programing. Clearly the President of the United States is no match for “New Girl.”
So if you’re tasked with writing a speech, what can you do to make it a compelling draw and maximize its impact on your audience? Here are three communication messaging takeaways from this year’s State of the Union.
Control the message: Gone are the days of passive media consumption. The name of the game in today’s social media landscape is engagement, and nowhere is that more evident than with the State of the Union. Throughout the night we’re watching it on TV, while simultaneously tweeting, and texting. If you’re following along reading the prepared remarks, therein lies another potential distraction. As one of my colleagues said to me Wednesday morning, “With four screens going, I admit I didn’t really get to hear the president.” Realizing the uphill battle for eyeballs Tuesday night, the White House was smart. In addition to releasing the prepared remarks ahead of time, (something they’ve done with increased frequency in recent years) they were live tweeting as well. They also heavily promoted a live enhanced version of the State of the Union on their website, including a interactive river of content designed to showcase administration policy. With information flying at incredible speed, their strategy was simple: make it easy for people to interact with and share prepackaged content. Well, it worked. The White House enhanced stream drew 1.2 million views, Twitter saw a total of 1,575,475 tweets and retweets using #SOTU on the day of the speech – about 25% growth relative to 2014—and many were fuelled by the president’s official Twitter feedas well as the White House, helping public messaging stay on course. In addition, if you chose to watch the White House YouTube stream, the president’s remarks were punctuated with statistics and visuals that would have otherwise been absent from the speech. The White House also followed the presidential address with its own Q&A session rather than show the Republican response, or rather, responses undercutting their message.
Going off script can be a good thing: Most communication is best done in a methodical, planned, and rehearsed fashion, especially when media is involved. There’s just too much at stake usually to shoot from the hip and not expect some sort of backfire. However, rules are meant to be broken, and when the Leader of the Free World wants to go off script, you let him. He did so twice on Tuesday night. First, when Republicans refused to applaud the economic recovery, Obama reminded them that the recovery was in fact, good news. The second time came during a rebuttal to Republicans who were all too happy to celebrate the looming end of Obama’s presidency. The eight words spoken off script ignited Twitter and quickly became the most talked about moment of the evening. Going off script can be tricky, but when done right can humanize a speaker and help drive a point home in a way that prepared remarks can’t.
Keep it short: The official runtime for the 2015 State of the Union was just under an hour, which is not historically succinct, unless we’re comparing Obama to President Clinton who’s credited with the longest speech on record—clocking in at nearly 90 minutes—in his final address to the nation in 2000. In 2015 it’s increasingly difficult to hold the attention of many for long periods. People’s attention spans are forever shrinking thanks to social media which by design encourages bite-sized communication. Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg was spotted taking a nap roughly 20 minutes into the president’s remarks. The shorter and more digestible you can make your communication, the better.
Those are some of my top communication takeaways from the 2015 State of the Union. What were some of yours?