"This is the White House calling..." A Last Minute Speech for Barack Obama

On Monday, September 21st, my business associate and friend Dawn Josephson received the call of a lifetime. “Hi Dawn…This is Karen from the White House. I’m calling to see if you and your son can attend an event with us this Wednesday the 22nd. President Obama will be in attendance, and he’d like you to be there as well.”

An invitation from the President! Naturally, she was excited and eager to go.

The following day she received another phone call: “Hi Dawn…about the event tomorrow… President Obama is going to start by saying a few words, and then he’d like to call on you to tell your story. Are you okay with this? Oh, and…can you send us your outline in an hour?”

If you thought doing a last minute speech in front of your board of directors, CEO, or company leaders was intimidating, imagine having less than 24 hours to prepare to speak before the President of the United States…and on national television! To top it all off, less than one hour before the event itself, the White House staff asked that she not use any notes as she spoke.

The event Dawn attended in Falls Church, Virginia was officially dubbed “A Backyard Discussion on Healthcare Reform and the Patient’s Bill of Rights,” and it featured President Obama addressing a group of Americans who have felt some benefit of the recent Affordable Care Act. Dawn was the first person the President called upon to tell her story about being able to obtain health coverage for her son, who has a pre-existing condition.

After the event was over, I asked Dawn how she managed to stay so calm and cool despite the circumstances. Here are some lessons she gleaned that will work in any high-stakes or last minute presentation setting.

  • Focus on only the most important details. Since she couldn’t use notes as she spoke, Dawn had to get clear on the most important points she wanted to make and focus her attention and limited practice time on those items only. She had to get those talking points right the first time—the other information had more leeway for impromptu dialog.
  • Follow instructions carefully. When you’re in a high stakes or last minute presentation circumstance, chances are the other party will have detailed instructions for you to follow. Be sure to follow them exactly, as it will actually relieve a lot of your stress. For example, the White House told Dawn that she had a maximum of two minutes to talk, to remain in her assigned seat as she spoke, and which parts of her story they wanted her to omit or use. By doing precisely what they said, she met expectations and didn’t have to stress over the details.
  • Remember that we’re all human. No matter how powerful or important the person or group you’re addressing appears to be, in the end, we’re all human. Dawn said that in the moments before the President arrived at the event, she told herself, “He’s just another person like me. He has to shower and brush his teeth in the morning, and he puts on his pants one leg at a time, just like the rest of us.” By assuring herself that people only intimidate us if we allow them to, she kept calm and told her story with ease.

While not everyone will have the opportunity to speak at a White House event with the President of the United States, we all have crucial last minute presentations that pop up. By following the suggestions Dawn gave, you can remain cool and confident in any speaking situation.

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[Click here to see the video of the “backyard discussion” with President Obama. Dawn’s story begins at the end of video #1 and continues into video #2. At the beginning of video #2, watch as her son Wesley (age four) gives President Obama a high-five!]