The First Rule for Delivering a Successful Speech: Know Your Audience

President Obama, during his eulogy of a slain minister, did not mention a major U. S. Supreme Court decision announced earlier that day. Here's why.

Years ago, I wrote a speech for Bob Lutz – then the President and Chief Executive Officer of Chrysler Corporation – to be delivered in downtown Detroit to a group of minority auto suppliers.

Since many in the audience were African Americans, I thought it would be cool if Lutz made a reference to a minor hit from the Motown songbook. To help make the point that doing business with an OEM like Chrysler was not a right, I wrote that the minority suppliers should always keep in mind the Temptations tune, “You’ve Got to Earn It.”*

The President knew his audience. Which is why he said not a word about same-sex marriages.

I’ve always liked that song. Based on the audience response that night, however, I was the only person who did. The line went down like a can of Vernor’s ginger ale that had been left open on the kitchen counter overnight – flat.

President Barack Obama speaks during services honoring the life of Reverend Clementa Pinckney, Friday, June 26, 2015, at the College of Charleston TD Arena in Charleston, S.C. Pinckney was one of the nine people killed in the shooting at Emanuel AME Church last week in Charleston. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster) ORG XMIT: SCCK114

President Barack Obama speaks during services honoring the life of Reverend Clementa Pinckney, Friday, June 26, 2015, at the College of Charleston TD Arena in Charleston, S.C. Pinckney was one of the nine people killed in the shooting at Emanuel AME Church last week in Charleston. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster) ORG XMIT: SCCK114

It wasn’t Lutz’s fault. He delivered the line just fine. The problem was the speech writer. Until the words came out of Lutz’s mouth, it had not occurred to me that a black audience would find it disingenuous for a white auto executive born and raised in Europe to quote a Motown song that he probably never heard of before.

The lesson: When making a speech, know your audience. Unless your goal is to create controversy, don’t’ say stuff they’ll find hard to swallow.

President Barrack Obama gave an excellent example of this truism when, on June 26, he eulogized the Rev. Clementa Pinckney. Nine days earlier, Pinckney, the pastor of Emanuel AME Church, in Charleston, S.C., was one of nine black people murdered during a Bible study meeting in the church.

Obama’s speech at Pinckney’s funeral service that Friday afternoon was remarkable for its range of topics. Speaking in one of the oldest black churches in America, he pointed out the importance of the church in African American culture. He noted the need for America to confront racism and “the unique mayhem that gun violence inflicts upon this nation.” He endorsed initiatives across the country to take down the Confederate flag. He also spoke about inequalities in employment and the criminal justice system, and called on more efforts to help the poor.

Heads nodded in agreement. Many an “amen” was uttered. People applauded and rose from their seats. Near the end of his remarks, Obama sang the first verse of “Amazing Grace,” a hymn that is a touchstone in the black church. The unscripted moment was electric, and the audience rose as one to add their voices to his.

The President knew his audience. Which is why he said not a word about same-sex marriage.

The omission was significant because only six hours or so before the funeral, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that same-sex marriages are legal in America.

The court’s decision was historic. It was one that Obama not only welcomed but praised before flying to Charleston.
But he also knew that, unlike the other issues he discussed during the funeral, same-sex marriage is a divisive topic within the black church. For example:

“The Supreme Court has gone rogue. It created a new law, instead of interpreting the laws…I fear and tremble for my country. The future of the country looks bleak right now,” said the Rev. Stacy Swimp, of Flint, Mich. One of the leaders of the National Coalition of Black Pastors, Swimp also said: “Now is the time for civil disobedience. Civil clerks who have a Christian conscience should refuse to marry two people of the same gender…They should be willing to disobey the law, even if that means we go to jail or be fined.”

The President was aware that these sentiments are shared by some of the clergy and church members who responded with such emotion to the eulogy, so he wisely spoke to shared beliefs, rather than to divisive differences.

The lesson is clear: The first step to delivering a successful speech is to know your audience.


*Released as a 45-rpm recording in 1965, “You’ve Got to Earn It” was the B-side of a much bigger hit, “Since I Lost My Baby.”

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James E. Kenyon

James is the publisher and editor of Page One Post. He was a newspaper reporter in Detroit and Norfolk, VA, before working in the corporate communications departments at a number of Michigan companies. His last stint was 18 years at Chrysler Corporation, where he handled media relations, product and marketing PR and speech writing. He retired from Chrysler in 2007. He enjoys listening to jazz, good cigars and bourbon Manhattans, often at the same time. He and his partner, Melba, live in Detroit's Rosedale Park neighborhood.