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Theatrics, Substance and Soliloquy: How State of the Union speeches use the writer’s toolbox

It’s no secret that in recent decades, presidents have used the very effective technique of inviting notable people to the State of the Union address and then calling attention to them. On Feb. 5, President Trump used the entire playbook.

Trump’s speech included a string of carefully screened and orchestrated vignettes that featured celebrated war heroes, border guards and even a young girl raising money for fellow cancer victims. In one of the longest SOTU speeches in known history, a plethora of people stood up, were recognized and then lauded in great detail for their contribution to the nation’s rich history.

Why are presidents turning more and more to individuals who have struggled, survived and succeeded? Do they make a point in a way the president’s own words cannot? From appearances, they were all genuinely appreciated by audiences on all sides of the political spectrum.

Certainly, President Trump was pulling out the persuasive narrative from each of his invited guests to make a point. Or many points. It is not for me to speculate on his motivation.
However, last Tuesday night, millions of people heard stories in real time of real people in real life. The emphasis was on citizens and the flow of life in our nation. And it was effective.

I tell my students that storytelling is critical to powerful communication. Good stories are notable and memorable, and they get your point across. Today, pundits dissect every word, every expression, of a speaker. But storytelling turns the focus away from the speaker to the story being told.

Pundits are hashing and rehashing the effectiveness and meaning of the State of the Union. That’s not my point. By turning the focus away from Trump to highlight the lives of others, we got a little break from politics as usual to hear real stories from real people.

I just hope the politicians in Washington were watching, and listening, too.

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