Wednesday, January 29, 2014

State of the laundry list

The President's annual State of the Union Address always provides a good overview of the agenda his administration will pursue in the coming year. Sometimes it even inspires! But last night's edition followed the pattern of too many SOTU's in recent memory--it was fairly dull. Here's how I know: I am trained to pay close attention to speeches of all kinds, yet I could barely overcome the distractions that beckoned.  After years of asking myself why I feel so strangely dissatisfied after SOTUs--whatever the party of the President--I engaged in an experiment last night. I actually tracked the speech to see if concentrating on that level made it easier to follow. It did not. Even with pen in hand, I lost the thread of the speech, only to pick it up seconds later, when I found we were on an altogether different topic.

I conclude that the State of the Union really isn't meant to be a very good speech, as speeches go. It is a comprehensive list, a giant memo outlining the administration's plans for the next months. I guess it fits this definition of address: "a formal communication". And since everyone in the room (and many of those who tuned in) would be reading and parsing the speech after the fact, maybe the President's speechwriters don't feel the need to "write for the ear." But to anyone at home who was not playing a version of SOTU bingo (I particularly like the League of Women Voters' version, pictured here) or listening for specific sound bites to support her/his cause, it was a dud.

Delivery was good, yes--the President looked relaxed yet enrgized, really focussed and relatively impassioned. And he displayed the great comic sense we relish whenever we see it.

But the content violated so many tried-and-true practices of speechwriting. His "introduction" (if that is what it was) contained one list of six points, followed by one of five, and I was getting lost already. There were far too many topics; Tamara Keith of NPR tweeted that he would cover 12! If they had been clumped into three major topics, say Equality/Inequality (income, civil and human rights), Economic Growth (foreign and domestic, big biz and small), Foreign Relations (Iraq, Afghanistan, war on terrorism, use of diplomacy) we could have tracked the subpoints more clearly. I got lost halfway through "Citizenship," which seemed to include "diplomacy" (with an appropriate shout-out to diplomats and the military). But that segued to the fight against terrorism, on to international relations and back to diplomacy. I saw how these could flow logically if you were reading a paper, but for the casual listener at home who was trying to follow the essence of the speech, it was hard. The address was definitely not user-friendly, unless you were using a scorecard or tweeting out favorite "lines."

There is a reason most speeches adhere to standard organizing principles, and good speeches rely on the "tell you what you're going to tell them, tell them, then tell them you told them" pattern in one variation or another. Even speeches based on a story-telling model have a beginning, a middle, and an end.

I think that is why most listeners are just half-attending the speech, waiting to prick up their ears when the President speaks about their issues. And maybe that is really the point of it--to cover key issues that matter to the constituents and policy-makers. So, yes, on that score it was a win. President Obama covered a lot. And I even heard some points that pleased me.

But let's not fool ourselves that this was a good speech. A good list, yes. With some great personal stories thrown in to liven it up. But beware--no one should use this as a model for their speech-making. Ever. If you want to capture the audience's attention and keep it, look to a speech that has some shape, some vision, some over-arching theme. For an address that really is a speech - look at just about anything else this President has given us.

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