The Dandelion Group

Technique of the week

SOTU 2019

82 minutes. Although he took longer than for his first State of the Union speech, Trump did not break Clinton’s record from 2000. This year’s address was slow and calm because the government shutdown negotiations had entered the final lap.

How were substance, structure and style?


The speech features numerous exaggerations and few surprises. Whilst the theme, “Choose Greatness”, built on the MAGA campaign slogans, the content was less consistent.

The 35-day shutdown has taken its toll on the tweeting President. Trump urged unity, presented a programme to empower women in developing countries, praised paid family leave and pledged $500m to combat child cancer. Conservatives heard why it was necessary to pull out of the INF treaty and that some sort of barrier will be built even if this means declaring a border emergency. Neither missiles nor mistrust disappeared and nothing novel emerged.


Great speeches follow a 2000-year-old formula. Cicero recommended:

  • Start by making people curious.

  • Explain the context.

  • Show disagreements.

  • Present evidence for your points.

  • Destroy the other side’s arguments.

  • Conclude by appealing to your audience’s emotions.

This year’s SOTU took the Roman path. Step four and five fell short, though.

A clear text is only a job half done. When you read it out, your tempo of speech matters. Trump pushed the boundaries and delivered less than 80 words per minute. Unless you worry about lulling children, you can speak a third slower than in a normal conversation.


The Republican wordsmiths did not forget verbal fireworks. SOTU’s are full of tropes and schemes, the two types of rhetorical devices. You find alliterations, (anti-)climaxes and hyperboles on every page (e.g. Tonight, we renew our resolve […]; 100,000 assaults, 30,000 sex crimes, and 4,000 killings […]; We meet tonight at a moment of unlimited potential.) The line “if there is going to be peace and legislation, there cannot be war and investigation” earned big laughter in the great chamber. Style does not trump substance after all.

Presidents teach us many lessons although their body language and attire is overrated. When you watch the video, you see that Speaker Pelosi and Trump picked red accessories, symbolising power, whereas Vice-President Pence contrasted with blue. If the President would have straightened his tie and removed his hands from the lectern, we could have witnessed a strong beginning. It took ten minutes until he corrected these mistakes. Then the chin stayed up, demonstrating confidence, and two teleprompters ensured that he looked to each side of the room.

7 lessons for public speakers

  1. Research your audience and pick a strategy beforehand.

  2. Make sure you say something newsworthy.

  3. Verify your numbers to avoid bad press.

  4. Prepare your speech like a book with a memorable title and chapters building on each other.

  5. Aim at 100-120 words per minute when you are on stage.

  6. Spice up your key points with rhetorical devices.

  7. Use open gestures and lasting eye contact to connect with people.

Learn the techniques. Boost your confidence. Make your point.
here to jump the curve.

Ben Wilhelm