Michelle Obama’s persuasive power

Speaking at a London girl’s school, Michelle Obama makes a passionate, personal case for each student to take education seriously. As far as persuasive speeches go, this one is clear, concise and passionate.

In this 12-minute speech, she engages the audience and develops a mutual connection with them right from the start with stories of her family, her modest upbringing, hardships experienced and overcome by her parents and herself, and how she met her husband. It is these stories that add the most colour to her talk, and that I believe provide the greatest bond with the audience.

This is a very inspirational speech that does not waver from its goal. Every story and example gets the point across of how “regular” people all have the power to do remarkable things if they get educated, help each other, pursue their passions, and use their talents to help their communities grow. If I was in her audience, I would feel like she’s speaking directly to me.

What would a presentation skills coach say?

The speech content is inspirational and well-structured. Very tight, direct, and persuasive. Calls-to-action at the conclusion, coupled with a smile, a strong voice and eye contact send off the audience with drive and motivation. The only thing I would add to the content would be a little more detail on her first date with her husband. My guess is that she didn’t want stories that were not relevant to the overall theme of her speech to overshadow the points she wanted to make. But it certainly would have been interesting!

So it all comes down to her delivery.

Where could she improve?

—  Microphone placement – Throughout most of the speech, she holds the microphone directly under her mouth, covering her chin and therefore obstructing part of her face. Holding the microphone two inches lower would have virtually no effect on the volume or clarity of her voice, and would allow her audience to see her whole face.

—  Filler words and sounds – “Uh” and “tsk.” In this speech, I counted 28 “uh’s” and 12 “tsk’s.” For a 12-minute speech, that’s almost 2.4 “uh’s” and one “tsk” per minute, which is quite a lot for someone who has to speak so regularly. These filler words can get quite distracting if they occur too often in a speech. Fortunately, once someone is aware of this problem, it’s easier to start fixing it.

The Undecided Issue: What about reading her notes?

I have to admit, I’m a bit torn on this one. On the one hand, although she read from her notes at times, she made sure to look up and maintain eye contact with her audience at least 75% of the time. However, a persuasive speech can be even more powerful if the speaker maintains eye contact with the audience 100% of the time. Notice the difference when she reads her notes, and then at the 11-minute mark, where she looks up and speaks from the heart in her concluding statements. Her passion really comes through whenever she looks up and speaks directly to the audience; and this passion is slightly diluted when she looks down to read her notes.

This doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t ever use notes. However, you can reach much deeper into the hearts and minds of an audience if you speak directly to them, and not read from notes. What do you think?

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