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6 public speaking lessons from the White House Correspondents’ Dinner
2016-05-04

The “nerd prom,” as it’s affectionately known, is a premier party for politicians (such as Bernie Sanders), journalists (such as Don Lemon) and celebrities, including Bill Nye, Tom Hiddleston and Kendall Jenner.

It’s a tradition for comedians to roast the commander in chief at the dinner—and the president always delivers a few punch lines as well. Though you might never get your hands on an invite, communicators can glean insights for their next presentation or interview.

Here are six takeaways from the star-studded event:

1. Use humor.

Everyone likes to laugh.

The audience appreciates it when presenters incorporate humor into their remarks and can poke fun at themselves—and President Barack Obama didn’t disappoint. Though he took comedic jabs at others, he also skewered himself, from a reference to his birth certificate to his so-called “mom jeans.”

His remarks were so witty that NPR gave Obama the title of “class clown” of the nerd prom.

You might not be vying for the same title, but making your audience laugh will probably net you positive feedback.

2. Know your audience and plan your material accordingly.

Comedian Larry Wilmore might not have been the best choice for host of the event.

The reviews of his remarks have been mixed at best, and some say that questionable choices with his jokes went too far.

The lukewarm reception might have been due to the dinner’s crowd. With an overwhelmingly white audience in attendance, Wilmore’s racial jokes were probably not in tune with their senses of humor . Hollywood Reporter’s journalist John DeFore wrote that had the crowd been more racially mixed, Wilmore’s material might have been better received.

When crafting your remarks, think of your audience members.

3. Play off the headlines.

The president brought in current events when he talked about how he could earn some “serious Tubmans” in one of his jokes, playing off the recent announcement of Harriet Tubman’s image replacing Andrew Jackson on the $20 bill:

If this material goes well, I'll use it at Goldman Sachs next year. Earn me some serious Tubmans.

Then he referenced Ted Cruz’s gaffe made during his recent visit to Indiana:

He went to Indiana—Hoosier country—stood on a basketball court and called the hoop a “basketball ring.” What else is in his lexicon? “Baseball sticks?” “Football hats?”

Using current news and trends in your presentations can capture audience attention and, when done correctly, can make your speech more relevant and interesting.

RELATED: Executive communicators, join our new LinkedIn group and get FREE tips and strategies to improve leadership communications.

4. Use what has previously worked.

Obama delivered a plethora of Donald Trump jokes, knowing that the crowd would eat them up—because he did something similar during 2011’s event and received rave reviews.

He had more material to work with this year and didn’t disappoint the crowd. This might’ve been a risk in other scenarios, but because it was a tried-and-true approach, Obama went for it again—with success.

Though you should take care to avoid having your remarks go stale from overuse, repeat jokes—or new material around hot topics that you’ve spoken about previously—can punch up your speech.

5. Take chances.

This is Obama’s final dinner, and his “why not?” attitude—including using Anna Kendrick’s “You're Going to Miss Me When I'm Gone”—reflected it. Regardless of how you feel about him, you have to give him props for his devil-may-care approach.

In like manner, memorable speakers take risks. Just make sure you don’t go too far, burning bridges you might have to use in the future.

6. Leverage the power of video.

The growing trend of video content didn’t escape the event’s producers, who used a short film produced especially for the evening to bring even more humor:

Couch Commander” took a page from shows like “Saturday Night Live,” which regularly perform these types of skits. The White House team even got the reporters and politicians to play along—and the first lady’s Snapchat account made an appearance.

Don’t use videos as a crutch; instead, employ them to make your presentation more visually interesting and entertaining.

What lessons did you take away from the White House Correspondents’ Dinner, PR Daily readers?

Michelle Garrett is a PR consultant and writer at Garrett Public Relations. Follow her on Twitter @PRisUs or connect with her on LinkedIn.

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