Will Future State of the Union Addresses be in PowerPoint?

Christopher Witt —  January 30, 2014

As the author of Real Leader’s Don’t Do PowerPoint (Crown Business), I am not suggesting that future Presidents should use PowerPoint in their State of the Union Addresses (SOTUs). I cringe at the thought. But recent developments and trends make me think that it will happen sooner or later.

I make that prediction based on my belief that the dominant style of public speaking has dramatically changed over the last fifty or sixty years, becoming increasingly casual.

The Reign of Oratory

John Kennedy SpeaksFor the longest time (over two millennium) public discourse was ruled by oratory, a formal style of speaking marked by an elegance of expression, a concern with lofty ideals and topics of great import, and dramatic delivery.

Oratory was a mainstay in ancient Greece. Philosophers and statesmen alike studied and practiced it. Romans continued to refine it and define its rules.

In the United States oratory held sway through the 1960’s. There are many examples or an oratorical style of speaking, including but not limited to:

There are fewer examples of oratory to be found through the next two decades.

By the 1980’s oratory was already being replaced by a plainer, simpler style of speaking.

The Rise of Simpler Speaking

Ronald Reagan — the most notable American speaker of the 1980’s — was, with good cause, called “the great communicator,” not the great orator. His style was simple and direct. He consciously avoided using rhetorical devices, speaking in a conversational, almost folksy style. Although he was an actor, he delivered his speech with conviction and gravitas, but without fanfare or dramatic pyrotechnics.

“Reagan told this writer [James Hume] that he would sacrifice ‘quotability’ for ‘credibility.’ When drafting his talks, he imagined himself speaking to his barber in Santa Barbara.” (From Reagan Persuasion: Charm, Inspire, and Deliver a Winning Message by James Humes)

Bill Clinton’s speeches were similar in style (not in substance) to those of Reagan. Clinton, too, was a great communicator, warm, empathetic, and engaging. He made it seem as if he were having a conversation with the audience, not making a speech.

(See “Conversational” Speeches Take Preparation.”)

Barack Obama uses, to great effect, a more more formal — more traditional — style than either Reagan or Clinton. Speechwriters and students of rhetoric love to point out Obama’s frequent and effective use of common rhetorical devices, including repetition, parallel structure, the rule of three, allusion, and anaphora.

(See “Obama’s Inaugural Address: the Use of Rhetoric.”)

Even those who disagree with just about every word that comes out of his mouth acknowledge the power of Obama’s speaking.

I enjoy Obama’s speeches and wish that more leaders – in politics, business, and even religion – could follow his example. But I can’t help wondering, if speeches in general – even good ones — are becoming passé.

The Ascendancy of Presenting

Fewer and fewer people give speeches these days. They make presentations.

Speeches are meant to influence and inspire audiences: to frame how people see the big issues and to impel them to act.

Speeches rely for the most part on the power of the spoken word, which is why those words have to be carefully chosen and crafted.

Speeches are an expression or an extension of a speaker’s character, personality, values, vision, and passion. The speaker is the message. (No one could have stepped in at the last moment, for example, and given King’s speech for him.)

Presentations are meant to communicate information in a way that people can understand, remember, and act on.

Presentations rely on the use of visual aids and, sometimes, on speaker notes, not on a written script.

And presentations, once developed and formatted into slides, can be given by any number of qualified people. (Companies often create presentations for their various sales reps to give.) The presenter is subordinate to the message.

The number of presentations given these days far exceeds the number of speeches.

And I expect that gap to grow for any number of reasons, which I may explore in a future post.

All of this leads me to believe that someday a future President will deliver a State of the Union Presentation using PowerPoint or Keynote or some form of it.

What do you think? Am I being an alarmist? Would it be a good thing? What would be lost?

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Christopher Witt

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Chris Witt was born in Los Angeles, California. He currently lives in San Diego. He works as a speech and presentations consultant, an executive speech coach, and an orals coach.