White House Conference

Last week I was at the White House for a conference on education policy. Those who attended the conference were alumni and members of the board of Leadership Greater Chicago Fellowship Program.  Several of its alumni populate the Obama administration including First Lady Michelle Obama, Senior Presidential Advisor Valerie Jarrett, Education Secretary Arne Duncan,   Council of Economic Advisors Chairman Austan Goolsbee, Department of Transportation General Counsel Robert Rivkin and so forth.

The White House

The Obama Administration views education, innovation, and infrastructure as imperative to America’s economic growth and competitiveness. The purpose of the conference was to obtain input from and bounce ideas off of thought leaders in order to make the case for fundamental changes in American education policy.  The Administration wants to push for a major expansion of instruction in science, technology, engineering, and math in primary and secondary education. Another long-term push is to make the U.S. # 1 in the number of yearly college graduates.

Making a Presentation

Whatever your politics may be, the one thing you can be sure of is that President Obama has very smart, talented, and articulate people working for him.  Ten members of his administration, ranging from a cabinet secretary to an economist, presented to us and took our many questions and listened to our many comments and suggestions.

To a person, the Obama staffers were exceedingly articulate.  None used a prepared text.     Also, none came off as arrogant, conceited, smug or egotistical. They were persuasive and impressive – not an easy thing to accomplish with this particular audience of recognized leaders.

Executives Must Speak Well

Like the Obama officials, private sector executives should be good presenters.  They need not be exceptional presenters, but they must express themselves well.  The trick is achieving consistency in quality.  An executive must minimize his off-days and try to maintain a minimum standard of effective communication.  Every executive cannot be a soaring orator or an entertaining speaker.  However, an executive can learn to speak knowledgeably and get his ideas across.

An executive can limit his opportunities if he is a poor, ineffectual speaker. Obviously not all successful politicians or captains of industry have been outstanding speakers.  But those persons who have mastered an acceptable quality of public speaking have greater chances of success than those who do not.

They say more people fear public speaking than fear death.  Even accomplished speakers can get butterflies and their knees can buckle.

Keep It Simple

Any hard-working person can learn effective public speaking. You can always join Toastmasters International, a club that serves as a public speaking boot camp. I am no expert on public speaking and the quality of my own speaking is not as consistent as I would like it to be.   It is hard to hit a home run every time you give a speech or a presentation.  You do want to get to the level that you will be assured of at least getting on first base. From studying others and from my own experience, I do believe there are certain maxims and tips that are helpful in trying to achieve consistent mastery of public speaking.  It helps to:

  1. Keep your topic simple; no more than three to five ideas;
  2. Keep your language simple; active voice, few adjectives, and short sentences;
  3. Know your subject well;
  4. Prepare and practice your speech so you get familiar with the cadence, rhythm, pronunciation, and word emphasis;
  5. Take deep meditation type breaths leading up to your speech; the breathing does help calm the mind;
  6. The more you present, the better you will get, so force yourself to do as many as you can and do not turn down an opportunity to speak;
  7. If the situation lends itself, try to make your presentation interactive with your audience like asking the audience questions or joking with an audience member; it can make the presentation more interesting;
  8. When appropriate, smile.

We all know of famous and not so famous people who have overcome stuttering, stammering, and stage fright to become effective speakers.  So can all of us.  We can’t all be outstanding speakers, but we all can be decent ones.


  1. Maria,

    You are right, of course, leaders and managers in any sector should master public speaking. Thanks for reminding us all.

    Please share your cure on public speaking stage fright as the readers of of blog will be interested and benefited.

    Yesterday,Chicago Mayor-Elect Rahm Emanuel came to share his ideas on transforming city government with Leadership Greater Chicago Fellows. He presented well and without notes. He certainly has had a great perch to observe up close master communicators Presidents Clinton and Obama. Having worked with Rahm when he was Chicago Housing Authority Vice Chairman and I was CHA General Counsel, I have seen how he has evolved into an exceptional presenter. I was impressed. Public speaking like any endeavor does improve with focused effort, practice and study. If one commits to it, one will achieve it.

    G. A.


  2. Great post. You captured the essence and ease of their presentation (& their passion) very well.

    Only 2 things got me:
    1. Consider your one statement where you said, “Like the Obama officials, private sector should be good presenters.” It’s really individuals of all sectors that s/b good presenters bc we each need to compel, listen, engage

    2. I have a quick cure for public speaking stage fright. If you’re interested. Let me know your thoughts.



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