7 Ways You Can Write a State of the Union-Worthy Speech

obamaTonight, President Obama will deliver his sixth State of the Union address in front of Congress. With millions watching, it's an unprecedented PR opportunity for the president.

This year's State of the Union will see the latest steps in the evolution of an annual ritual. Since 2011, The White House has broadcasted an "enhanced" version of the speech on WhiteHouse.gov, featuring charts and graphics to accompany the ideas President Obama outlines. This year, the White House has created a team of Web-savvy staff members who will be charged with using videos, social media posts, digital op-eds and animated GIFs to spread the president's message on the Internet during and after the speech, according to the The New York Times.

Partisan politics aside, few people disagree that President Obama is a talented speaker. Still, delivering the State of the Union is probably his greatest oratorical challenge of the year. Anyone who has ever given a speech can tell you that there is always room for improvement.

With that in mind, here are seven tips for making sure that when it's your turn to give an important speech, you'll have a good script in hand, courtesy of Anelia Varela, U.S. director of language consultancy at The Writer:

  • Tell them a story. Ideas are nice, but parents don't read their children bedtime ideas. Stories are what we remember. A first-person account that illustrates your main theme is ideal. If your own experiences don't fit the bill, talk about someone else's. That's a standard SOTU maneuver.
    Anelia Varela
    Anelia Varela, U.S. director of language consultancy, The Writer
  • Conjure the future. Humans don't just have the ability to imagine the future. It's basically a need. Great speeches take advantage of it, like Martin Luther King Jr.'s "I Have a Dream" speech.
  • Give them a roadmap and refer back to it. When we listen to a speech, we might get lost by missing a line or two. So effective speakers let the audience know where they are. Consider this line from FDR's first fireside chat: "I want to tell you what has been done in the last few days, and why it was done, and what the next steps are going to be."
  • Give it some rhythm. Add a little alliteration. A little repetition. Some short sentences between your long ones. This will give your speech added energy. Like this line from JFK's "Moon" speech: "Why, some say, the Moon? Why choose this as our goal?"
  • Give them something to laugh at. It's impossible to ignore someone who's made you laugh, or at least crack a smile. A little self-deprecation is usually a sure bet. Note how General Douglas MacArthur, world-famous in his day, started his "Duty, Honor, Country" speech at West Point with a joke about not being recognized by a hotel doorman.
  • Acknowledge the elephant in the room. If you're speaking to a skeptical audience, don't tip-toe around its concerns. Address the concerns head-on, as in Nixon's "Checkers" speech: "I come before you tonight as a candidate for the vice presidency and as a man whose honesty and integrity has been questioned."
  • Don't be afraid to be short and to-the-point. In speeches, quality is not proportional to length. The Gettysburg Address was only 272 words.

One last thing: Whether you're speaking to a joint session of the United States Congress or on a Skype session with potential clients, don't follow these (or any) speechwriting tips blindly. Only use the ones that fit the right context and feel natural. No matter how good your script is, your speech won't succeed if it comes off robotic or inauthentic.

Follow Anelia Varela on Twitter: @aneliavarela

Follow Brian Greene on Twitter: @bwilliamgreene