In Honor of Presidents’ Day: Public Speaking Lessons from George Washington

Presidents’ Day, also known as George Washington Day, was the first federal holiday to honor an American citizen and was initially celebrated on Washington’s actual birthday, February 22. On January 1, 1971, the federal holiday was shifted to the third Monday in February by the Uniform Monday Holiday Act. This date places the holiday between February 15th and 21st, which makes the name “Washington’s Birthday” a misnomer, since it never lands on Washington’s actual birthday! Regardless of the date or what you call it, no one can deny that our country’s first president was a great leader. I recently read the book Presidential Voices: Speaking Styles from George Washington to George W. Bush by Allan Metcalf. It’s an interesting book and one I highly recommend. In it, Metcalf tells us, “the early years of the Republic through the end of the nineteenth century were the golden age of oratory… Listening to oratory, even for hours at a time, was a favorite entertainment in the days before movies, television, video games, rock concerts, amusement parks, and the internet.”

Interestingly, as it turns out, George Washington was not a great orator. In fact, “he established the precedent that oratorical ability is not a requisite for the presidency.”

One of the major reasons for Washington’s poor speaking skills was his teeth. Contrary to popular belief, his teeth were not made of wood. They were made of hard materials—tusks, bones or teeth of animals or humans, or gold or silver. During the course of his lifetime he had six sets of false teeth, and they did affect his speech. The upper and lower sets of his teeth were connected to each other by steel springs. Washington had to clench his jaw tightly together just to keep his mouth shut. This caused noticeable discomfort and made it difficult to speak for long periods of time.

But speak he did…and we can learn a great deal from the speeches he gave. Some key points include:

Brevity: Because of the pain and discomfort of his teeth, Washington spoke in very short intervals and no more than 15 minutes at a time. Most of his speeches were around 10 minutes. He was a master of keeping his remarks short and to the point.

Varied tone: In his first inaugural address, Washington set the tone of high, formal, ornate style, using long and elaborate sentences of 87 words or more. Yet in his second speech, he spoke plainly and directly. By varying his tone to match the event or situation, he showed his connection to the moment and to the audience’s expectations.

Highly personal: Though Washington looked to the British monarchs’ annual address at the opening session of Parliament as a model for his inaugural address, he chose to use the phrase “My fellow citizens…” He was, after all, the First Citizen and not His Majesty.

Spoke with dignity, formality, and humility: Washington had a quiet, low, monotone voice, perhaps caused by the effort it took to manage his teeth. When he delivered his first inaugural address, his voice was said to be shaky and soft. But while his voice was soft, his bearing was imposing. He was 6’ 2” tall—quite tall for those days—yet his physical presence coupled with his dignified yet humble style kept him from intimidating others.

No matter what your personal speaking style, take a lesson or two from George. After all, if his words, presence and speaking style were able to inspire a young country, they can also inspire today’s speakers.

Happy Birthday, Mr. President.