Presentation Lessons Learned From the Democratic National Convention

Just one week after the Republicans, the Democrats whooped it up for their convention speakers and their candidate for re-election, President Barack Obama."Lessons Learned from the Democratic Presidential Convention"

They had the advantage of learning what worked for the GOP – and what didn’t work. As a result, the opening night speakers, in our non-partisan view, gave more polished and rousing presentations.

Do you agree? At the end of the post, we offer our final thoughts about lessons learned.

Julian Castro

Pros: The charismatic 37-year-old Mayor of San Antonio, Julian Castro, was the first night’s keynote speaker. His twin brother, Joaquin, who is running for Congress in November, introduced him.

Mayor Castro took full advantage of the spotlight. He was totally invested in his talk. He was charming and charismatic. Engaging directly with the audience, he smiled often and appeared to enjoy himself. Commentators predicted that Mayor Castro is most likely destined for a bright future in the Party.

He transitioned to a solemn demeanor when describing his own rise from humble beginnings and the need to enable other Americans to live their dreams like he and his brother have.

Mayor Castro used memorable phrases, such as: “Opportunity today – prosperity tomorrow,” and that his hard-working grandmother, who cleaned houses, enabled him “to trade a mop for a microphone.” Additionally, the camera panned often to his mother, the model of the hard-working Middle American the Democrats were targeting in their speeches.

Cons: He could have built more pauses into his talk – especially at the beginning. His stories were compelling and offered the listener a lot of visual imagery, but since he rarely took a breath, it was hard to keep up with him as he moved on to his next point.  Listeners need a moment to process what they just heard before they can process the next point.

Although he smiled often, we question whether the smiles reached his eyes? Or, were they artificial with just his lips turned up.

Michelle Obama

Pros: The First Lady was introduced by a mother with four children in the military, who was invited to visit the White House after writing a letter to Mrs. Obama last December. That was a smart move by because it made the case that the Obamas care about the “little guy” and care about the military and their families."Michelle Obama wowed the audience with her dress"

Mrs. Obama came on stage in a flattering pink dress that was feminine but not “girly.” Her makeup and hair were beautifully done. She personified elegance.

Speaking from the heart, she wasn’t afraid to show emotion. She seemed on the brink of tears in praising her husband, but it was authentic. Her talk was eloquent and credible. She had the crowd mesmerized and on their feet cheering.

It was barely noticeable that she was reading from a small lectern teleprompter that enabled her to look directly at the audience.  This helped her to make a personal connection with each person in the audience.  This was something that would have helped the GOP speakers a lot!

She, too, had several memorable lines including, “I have seen firsthand that being president doesn’t change who you are – no, it reveals who you are,” which drew thunderous applause.

Like Ann Romney, the First Lady’s job was to humanize her husband, who the media often describes as aloof and distant. To give Mrs. Romney all due credit, unlike Mrs. Obama, she has not spent the past four years making dozens of speeches and public appearances to perfect her presentation skills.

Cons: The only slight quibble would be Mrs. Obama’s penchant for sleeveless dresses. While her dress was beautiful and flattering, some people might feel it was more appropriate to have worn sleeves than to have bare arms.

The fashion police loved it, though, and the New York Times pointed out it would sell for between $395-$450 — appealing to the middle class — compared to the $1,990 shirtwaist dress that Mrs. Romney wore.

Elizabeth Warren

Pros: The Senatorial candidate from Massachusetts was confident and direct.  She effectively used alliteration to make her points, as did the other speakers. Regarding the middle class, “My fight is their fight and Barack Obama’s fight, too.”

She reminded the audience that it was her idea to start the controversial Consumer Financial Protection Agency that the bank lobby fought, and promised if the President was re-elected, “no one will steal your purse on Main Street or your pension on Wall Street.”

Cons: She wore a flattering blue tailored jacket and pants. However, she had a very severe hairstyle that reminded you of the schoolteacher she had been before entering politics.

Her remarks were well written and well spoken, however her overall look worked against her.

Bill Clinton

Pros: The former President showed that he can still can knock your socks off with a real stem-winder of a speech. He was folksy and relaxed, using pauses effectively. He didn’t seem over-rehearsed like many of the convention speakers.

He continuously injected spontaneity, such as asides like “Now wait a minute, wait a minute,” to hush the crowd and make a point. Mr. Clinton made complex policy issues understandable, using plain English.

As Andrew Rosenthal of The New York Times pointed out, he’s probably the only person in the world who could use the word arithmetic as an applause line. He used that word than more than once to indict the Republicans for what he considered their flawed financial roadmap for the country.

He used gestures well — like crossing his hands over his heart when he said, “With all my heart I believe…” He also added the very human touch of scratching his ear a couple of times at his seeming bewilderment of the Republicans.

Even though he did a lot of finger pointing, which is usually not advised by coaches, his folksy down-home style made it acceptable.

He had the crowd on their feet for long stretches during his speech, at times speaking to them like they were old friends, and then switching gears in his gravelly voice to hit punch line after punch line out of the park.

He kept the convention hall audience spellbound by varying his voice and his tempo. Time and again he came out with zingers aimed at the Republicans, while at the same time touting his record of cooperation with them while he was President.

It was a masterly balancing act.

Cons: The speech was too long, coming in at 48 minutes vs. the scheduled 28 minutes. He no doubt lost some TV viewers to football, even while the conventioneers remained enthralled.

Towards the end Clinton began to stumble over some words. Perhaps even he was getting tired of talking.  Giving a long speech like that is the equivalent of running a marathon.  You can’t sprint throughout but need to pace yourself.

Joe Biden

Pros: Joe Biden was focused, warm and on message. He avoided any of his usual malapropisms. He roused the crowd with a preview of his stump speech. They interrupted him many times with wild applause.

He was fiery in his criticism of their opponents. Yet he turned soft and passionate in a beautiful tribute to his wife, Jill Biden. It was very special that he shared the secret that he proposed five times before she agreed to marry him. It was obvious that they love each other.

It was a good lesson that when you’re presenting, you will engage your audience if you let them see your personal side.

While Biden did a lot of finger pointing, he did it with a smile on his face so that it didn’t seem like he was admonishing us.

He had several of the most memorable lines of the convention, such as “bravery resides in the heart of Barack Obama;” “this man has courage in his soul, compassion in his heart and steel in his spine;” and “Osama Bin Laden is dead and General Motors is alive.”

He ended with the rousing line, “My fellow Americans, America is coming back and we’re not going back! And we have no intention of downsizing the American Dream.”

It was an excellent performance all around.

Cons: He did a little too much finger pointing. Never known for his brevity, the Vice President also spoke too long, clocking in at about 40 minutes. That was a couple of minutes longer than the President, who followed him.

President Obama

Pros: In a beautiful touch, Michelle Obama came on stage and briefly introduced Barack Obama as the “love of my life.” They embraced when he reached the lectern – then embraced again.

He started his speech by saying, “Michelle, I love you very much,” sure to appeal to every wife who yearns to hear that from her husband. He made a real connection and showed a warm side that helped to refute the criticism that he is cold and aloof.

The President seemed – well, very Presidential. He spoke with confidence and hammered away at the theme of “you.” He used the word over and over in describing how “you” – the American people – had helped the recovery, and together they would continue the country’s comeback from a great recession. The word “you” is a word we encourage clients to use in their speeches and presentations. It appeals to the ego and gains the audience’s attention.

As several commentators noted, the President painted a stark contrast between the Democratic platform and what he said was the Republican’s solution to our problems,  “cutting taxes for the wealthy while increasing defense spending that the military doesn’t want.”

In the distinct cadence of a Southern Baptist preacher, he seemed to be leading a revival meeting instead of a convention.  He, too, rallied around another convention theme of  “moving forward and not backward.”

It was a rousing speech, but delivered with dignity befitting the holder of the highest office in the land.

Cons: The President constantly moved his head between prompters, almost in the steady rhythm of a metronome. He had the difficult task of matching the charismatic performance former President Bill Clinton.

Clinton was a hard act to follow. While President Obama delivered a stately speech it wasn’t very memorable. There wasn’t a “grabber” that would make day-after headlines.

Lessons Learned

Here are the most important lessons learned from the Democratic Convention about giving an effective speech and what to avoid include:

  • Dress appropriately. We were surprised at the extent of media coverage for Mrs. Romney and the First Lady’s dresses. When you give a presentation, you are in the spotlight, too, even if you’re only addressing a handful of people in a conference room. Watch what you wear – no calves showing for men, no low-cut dresses for women. No flashing, dangling or noisy jewelry. You want the focus to be on your remarks.
  • Do what works for you.  Mitt Romney used two standing teleprompters with see-through glass. They are aptly called Presidential teleprompters. Michelle Obama relied on a small teleprompter attached to the lectern although she had access to the Presidential prompters. Bill Clinton preferred to speak from his own notes. Choose a method that works for you and if you want to read from a script, that’s a perfectly acceptable choice. You will need training, though, to perfect your delivery no matter what technique you use.
  • Include memorable quotes. Alliteration – the repetition of sound or phrases – is especially effective, as in “I have seen firsthand that being president doesn’t change who you are – no, it reveals who you are.” If you can’t think of one yourself search sites such as
  • Tell stories. As we’ve said before, storytelling touches the heart when you want to show how you overcame all odds to succeed. Be sure your story has a strong take-away which you need to articulate to the audience.
  • Use people’s names. People like to hear their own names. Speakers at both conventions humanized their presentations by referencing family members – sometimes in Spanish. If you’re giving a presentation, uses phrases like, “As Jack said earlier…”.  Be sure to recognize the contributions of others by name.
  • Shorten your speeches. The trend in presentations and speeches is the shorter, the better. At both conventions, speakers may have had gripped the conventioneers, but no doubt lost many in the viewing audience. Speak only as long as it takes to make your points. The prestigious TED conferences limit their speakers to 18 minutes tops, and some speakers are given even less time than that. Yet TED is renowned for their powerful presentations that the audiences pay thousands of dollars to hear.

What lessons did you take away from the convention speakers? Please share them with our readers in the comment box below. We would love to hear from you.

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  1. Joyce, I’m so glad that you shared your thoughts. You are quite aligned with thoughts we share on our podcasts, .I believe it is very important for us, as professionals, to help voters identify and evaluate the “techniques” being used buy politicians, especially. has been going since the’08 campaign. We will be judging the debates with a live audience , again, this year. I’d love to have you on the show. Let me know if you’d care to explore it. I’d invite any of our professional speech coaches to join in this effort to help our fellow Americans make wise decisions and not be manipulated by speaking techniques we can identify for better or worse. I look forward to hearing from my colleagues. Dennis Becker

  2. Exceptional analysis. Best I’ve read and I’ve read at least a dozen as research for my writing workshops and classes. I’m going to share it with my classes this week when my fall semester starts at NYU. Salud!

  3. Excellent comments on pros and cons….thoroughly enjoyed reading your in depth analysis of these speakers! Thank you for the read!

    1. Kathryn – So pleased you enjoyed our “Lessons Learned” blog. We’ve had a couple of really late nights the past two weeks churning out these critiques so your comment is truly appreciated!

  4. Trina- If you take a look at our blog, “Lessons Learned from the GOP Convention”, you will see that we most definitely commented on what Mitt wore. Truly not sexist on our part. There’s always a lot to say in a small amount of space. Thanks for commenting. JN

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