The YBF emphasis on public speaking training matters. Not everyone would agree. The current disregard of speeches would be sadly laughable, except for the widespread ignorance of the true place and power of words in a campaign. Standing on the sidelines, watching tens of millions of dollars wasted in the current political season in the United States, one can see vast opportunities ignored and preventable errors made by the disdain of speech crafting and speech delivery. Some people are just filling the air with words that are diseased and dead. The speeches are forgettable. Nothing happens after a speech. Often the clumsy, inexperienced, ridiculous results are sickening.
With apologies to Shakespeare, the speech is the thing. Just ask Barack Obama. His well-crafted story as speech, delivered with eloquence and inspiration, gave him the presidency in 2008.
That lesson has been lost on a number of people. Recently, in my work as a consultant, I have listened to several politicians tell me (right to my face) that speeches don’t matter, that a campaign doesn’t need to worry about speeches. There is a corollary: eloquence is unnecessary. It is false, inauthentic, and unnatural. These politicians don’t want to craft a good stump speech, much less deliver it well. They don’t want to invest the time or effort. They actually fear the effect. They turn their dislike of speechwriting and speech giving into a rant against the speech itself. If they don’t like making a speech then the speech isn’t worth doing well.
For others, the speech is just an old form of campaigning, a quaint vestige of earlier, pre-technology campaigns. It ranks down there with billboards, buttons, and campaign songs, and definitely below lawn signs, radio spots, and handbills. If a speech is needed, let some intern or public relations person write it, preferably as talking points so the candidate can “personalize” it when delivered. In an age of web sites, tweeting, Facebook, phone calls, press releases, fundraisers, advertising, media buys, endorsements, position papers, obligatory campaign autobiographies, interviews, polling, strategy, war rooms, focus groups, and other efforts, some believe the speech is simply part of event planning, and not the main part of any event. For them, the speech is just a collection of words for a few sound bites and visuals, not a core part of any campaign effort. In the words of one former client, “90 percent of it is just showing up.” After all, for them, the campaign is all about them. It is a glamour process in which their ego is stroked and enlarged by the crowds and attention. Words should not get in the way of the candidate.
So I am writing to defend the speech.
The right speech can change the world. It can give the candidate everything: persuasive words, compelling message, defendable ground, a gravitational pull drawing supporters, and coherent vision. A speech defines a candidate’s identity. It displays thinking and motivation. As the great, great, great Aristotle said, it shows character. A speech can be good political theatre. It can also be a major part of a campaign strategy, leading a campaign forward, week by week, keeping the opposition off balance, playing catch-up. A speech should be part of a pro-active blueprint to capture the strongest rhetorical ground and win an election, forcing the other candidate(s) to react and speak from weaker rhetorical ground.
A speech is not merely words. A speech is action. As action, it can be used to propel a campaign forward, channeling thinking to a pre-determined end, and bring the electorate to a point of collective agreement with the candidate. A speech is a powerful, profound tool in the right hands.
A great speech will last long after the candidate. Political careers come and go, campaigns recede into history. But a great speech has immortality, still doing its work long after the people associated with it have left the political arena.
I also defend eloquence. Eloquence is not pretty words. It is not a force-fitting of language into a pre-shaped, artificially constructed opportunity. Eloquence is often speaking the right words at the right time, words for the historical moment, words that are simple, straightforward, clear, cogent, and compelling.
That is the kind of eloquence we need right now. In the last few months, political communications scholar Kathleen Hall Jamison, conservative columnist George Will, and others have asked both American presidential candidates to speak plainly to voters. Cut right to it. What do you offer the American people? Be specific. Be thoughtful. The false eloquence of pretty words that don’t say anything has not been lost on the American people. The first presidential debate showed that Americans want the candidates to speak to them in direct, honest language. A good template for such language is Ronald Reagan. He was “the great communicator” because he knew how to communicate through simple statements. Phrases like “the evil empire” or “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall, or “Government is not the solution. Government is the problem” are not complex statements with endless layers of philosophical depth. Yet, they changed history precisely because of their boldness, daring, and comprehensibility. How can we be only two generations removed from Reagan and not remember all this? How can the living memory of Reagan’s abilities be so obviously forgotten by today’s politicians?
Reagan knew how to lead with words. You can’t say that about the current presidential candidates. Romney is still searching for words. I personally hope he finds them. Obama wants to hide behind his words, hoping that his personal story still has some magic. His lack of vision is harmful to business confidence and the American economy. If a candidate has a muddled, vague, obscure speech it is a sure sign of muddled, vague, and obscure thinking. It tells the listener that the candidate doesn’t know what she or he wants or thinks. A muddle is a muddle is a muddle. It is not a strategy, unless it is a poor one. I know some consultants advise a candidate to speak in vague, hazy language, hoping that the lack of clarity becomes a pleasing message in the minds of the voters, language that is all things to all people, a strategy of winning through confusion. But that is not leadership. That kind of winning does not provide a mandate. It does not allow for governance. Voters want clear choices, not foggy misdirection.
Make no mistake. In a winning strategy, the speech is the thing. It is the moment when candidate unites with the voters. The speech offers ideas tested for approval or rejection. The speech is where policies, programmes, and politics are revealed and discussed, helping construct a vision of the future and a roadmap to get there. A speech is a very human action, where the candidate asks for support, belief, faith, trust, and loyalty. Aristotle said that politics should ennoble the community, enrich it and make it better. Speeches are an inherent, necessary part of all that. When we ignore the speech and the eloquence that should be demanded in a speech, we obtain poor results: a vacuous and divisive process that produces candidates who will not use a speech as action to shape our times, unite the electorate, and lead a country.