Dealing with a long laundry list of topics

Check out any book on speech and presentation writing and the advice is consistently the same: focus your talk on one strong message and back it up with three to five supporting points. But real life speeches and presentations don't always fit the classic model, and, occasionally, you may find yourself trying to make a silk purse out of a sow's ear long list of topics.

U.S. President Barack Obama faced that dilemma when he delivered the State of the Union Speech February 12 (2013). He spoke for roughly an hour, which is a long time considering modern-day attention spans. By my count, he covered 26 different topics ranging from debt repayment to tax reform, extreme poverty, early education, infrastructure redevelopment, gun control and the right to vote. Yet, despite all that heavy duty material, his words held my attention as he spoke them, and again later when I read the transcript.

Here are five reasons why his speech worked even though it was built around a long laundry list of items.

• President Obama didn't talk at his audience; he spoke with them. His tone and simple vocabulary were conversational.

• He drew his audience in early with a reference to "our unfinished task" and empowered them by emphasizing and re-emphasizing the role they shared in determining the success or failure of his vision.

• He used strong transitions to link topics and create a smooth speech flow. From a discussion of the deficit, he moved on to health care "...the biggest driver of our long-term debt..."

• He told stories about ordinary people caught up in extraordinary events.

• He went easy on the numbers. Instead of stating sterile statistics, he gave anecdotal examples: "We have doubled the distance our cars will go on a gallon of gas..."