Master Your Message Blog

Obama on Syria … BUT! (a Teachable Moment)

President Obama’s address at the White House this weekend outlining the decision he’d made regarding launching an attack on Syria was one of the least persuasive speeches I’ve seen him give (other than that questionable debate performance from the last election!). I had to review the transcript to get as good sense as to why.

He displayed one of the classic mistakes novice speakers make—using the word “but.” Now, we all know that using the word “but” in a sentence subordinates, even negates everything you said before it. Funnily enough, it has the same effect in a speech.

His performance was only “good”—not  his best— and that’s often the result of someone who is not 100% in tune with what they’re saying (after all, the body doesn’t lie). The underlying structure of his talk provides the clue as to why.

Let’s look “under the hood” at what his message really was: The chemical weapons attack on the Syrian people was an attack on human dignity. I’ve made the personal decision to take military action. BUT, I’m not going to do that … and then the rest of the speech (clearly 75% of it) was backtracking on that first decision and attempting to justify what he was really going to do—take the ultimate decision to congress (although he was reserving the right to make a final decision regardless).

As a result, a very confusing speech.

This is not the structure I’d recommend for a persuasive speech. By centering his argument around the word “but,” he’s “telegraphing”  that his decision is not important; it’s what congress thinks that’s important, although we all know this stance is a complete turnaround from his previous position. The truth is, of course, that he’s lost his allies, would now have to act unilaterally, with 50% of the American people backing away from support of an intervention (based on the latest polls). By trying to save face and put himself first, he’s clearly come off as indecisive, weak, and confused.

He should have turned the structure around, started with the problem (as he did) and then launched right into the real solution—to take the decision of whether to act to congress. The remainder of the speech then could have been centered on “the sale” to congress rather than defending his position. As part of the persuasive pitch for making a decision to intervene, he could have made the point that he’s made his decision based on irrefutable facts (and laid them out appropriately). However, he’s come off looking weak as a result of using that BUT word.

Take a look at the speech transcript—you’ll see it right at the start of the seventh paragraph: “But having made my decision …” Unfortunately, the rest of the speech was about defending his decision. There’s not a lot of persuasive strength in that approach.

In fact, the debacle was enhanced with John Kerry on “Meet the Press”—an extremely unsettling, defensive, and sometime rambling attempt to justify this new position. Kerry has a penchant for becoming somewhat arcane in his language when he goes off script.

If you don’t believe what you’re saying, your body language will give you away.

So, how could we have taken persuasive speech structure and applied it to the Obama situation?

He could have (or his writers should have) settled on only one solution—not two— and then supported it, leading to a strong conclusion: Start with the problem, outline your solution (to take the decision to congress) and then support it with your main points. Finally, summarize and reiterate the problem and solution. Obama’s personal decision should have supported the main decision of going to congress.

You’ll find that if your message is clear, concise, and repeated several times during your talk, it will be memorable. You also must believe it in. That’s the other part of the equation at work here. If you don’t believe what you’re saying, your body language will give you away. That was clearly at work here, as well.

What are your thoughts on the speech, how it was delivered, and what could have been done differently … or not?


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