How To Give A Killer Speech: Lessons From The 2012 Political Conventions

Most of the time, a political convention combines the best of public relations strategy, messaging, marketing, and theater. But good or bad, there are always learnings that PR pros and our clients can take to any public speaking opportunity. Here are some from my convention-watching over the past two weeks.

Match the room. Politicians and their surrogates often face the dual-audience dilemma: whether to address the television viewing audience or the  convention hall itself. But most of us can tailor our voice, gestures, and energy to the physical environment and a single group. For a smaller venue, a natural speaking style works. But a large auditorium calls for bigger, bolder gestures and vocal inflections, and a higher-than-normal energy level.

Know the material. Overreliance on a teleprompter is a key reason why many speakers fall short. If you’re not comfortable with the material, or feel you need to read every last line, the delivery can be monotonous and wooden. The best speakers memorize portions of the speech, and/or they learn to read ahead so that eye contact, head movement, and vocal inflection can be more natural.

Tell a story. Everyone knows this, but political speakers tend to do it best. A single anecdote is more powerful than a policy download. One story beats statistics. The mom whose daughter needed heart surgery, Governor Susana Martinez’s anecdote about her GOP awakening, and Tammy Duckworth’s inspiring story were just a few of the standouts.

Show your feelings. The goal of any speech is to connect with the audience. It’s often effective to share a personal anecdote and show real emotion, as long as it’s appropriate and not unchecked. Mitt Romney’s evocation of his father and President Obama’s tribute to his wife were both well calibrated. Joe Biden’s emotional pauses at the end of his speech were a bit distracting, because he seemed to have teleprompter difficulties and I initially wondered if he’d blanked out.

Have a back-up. “Always pack your own parachute” is how one speaker put it when a letter she planned to read wasn’t placed at the podium as planned, and she was able to pull another copy out of her pocket. Errors happen. Teleprompters go down. Does anyone remember President Bill Clinton’s SOTU address in 1994? Another speech was loaded into the teleprompter by mistake, but the Improviser-in-Chief famously didn’t miss a beat, turning in a perfect rendition until the error was fixed. Of course, he abandoned the prepared text again at the DNC in Charlotte, but that was purposeful. The point is most of us wouldn’t have been able to wing it. Check, then check again. Redundancy rules.

Connect to your content. Jimmy Carter used to smile when delivering serious news. At the RNC, Nikki Haley looked cheerful while blasting Obama’s policies. This can undermine the message. The best speakers, including Condoleezza Rice and Michelle Obama, were perfectly in sync with their words in terms of facial expression, voice, and body language.

Don’t distract. This is where preparation and videotaped rehearsals come in. If you were on Twitter during the speeches, you may have seen tweets about Paul Ryan’s frequent throat-clearing or Ted Strickland’s shouting, each of which arguably distracted from their content. Also odd was the swirly blue background in Tampa – I found it vertigo-inducing.

Build it. And both parties did! A truly great speech has phases, – maybe a warm, humorous intro, followed by a faster-paced and punchy middle, a more “intimate” sharing, and a roaring finale. Several speakers, including Ann Romney, used their voice to powerful effect, lowering it for personal reflections, then raising it to punctuate an important point. Deval Patrick’s fire-breather rose to a climax worthy of a Baptist Sunday sermon. The effective pacing and vocal inflections made these some of the best at either convention.

Prepare for the unexpected. Public speakers need to be prepared for physical discomfort, nerves, delays, interruptions, equipment failure, spontaneous applause, even hecklers at times. As for Clint Eastwood’s now-famous 12 minutes, it was unusual in that the iconic star was apparently allowed a free hand. Giving up control is a huge risk to be avoided at all costs. I’d call it a distraction at best (at Marco Rubio’s and even Romney’s expense) but the empty chair did get buzz. Whether it was good, bad, or ugly, however, probably depends on who was watching.

How Not To Apologize: A Lesson In "Apology PR"

The past two weeks have seen a cascade of misdeeds to fascinate apology-watchers like me.

Where to begin? There’s the mushrooming scandal over the GSA’s $820,000 taxpayer-funded junket to Las Vegas in 2010. And the even seamier “hookergate” involving members of the Secret Service (though at least they were cost-conscious in their indiscretion!)

There was also plenty of outrage over ill-chosen public comments. In an unexpected gift to the Romney campaign, progressive pundit Hilary Rosen managed to anger stay-at-home moms, conservatives, and even the White House with her comment about Ann Romney.  Then there were the rogue remarks of rocker and gun enthusiast Ted Nugent, whose wacky anti-Obama rant earned him a visit from the Secret Service itself, in a nice bit of symmetry.

Most of the above have resulted in a public mea culpa. Some are baffling and nearly all are terrible. Inspired by the past week of apologies, I’ve drafted a guide for how not to deliver a face-saving public apology:

Wait it out. This is what Hilary Rosen tried to do in the wake of a strong reaction to her statement that “Ann Romney hasn’t worked a day in her life.” Though Rosen explained she was objecting to candidate Romney’s attempt to liken his wife to struggling working moms rather than criticizing her choice, the controversy didn’t abate until she formally apologized. Politics? Of course, but if you live by the sword, sometimes you have to fall on it.

Blame the victim. “I’m sorry if anyone was offended….” is how the classic non-apology starts. This is a flawed communications strategy because it evades responsibility and seems to put the blame on the injured parties. There’s a bit of this in Romney adviser Richard Grenell’s public apology for his Twitter updates criticizing Hillary Clinton’s appearance, Rachel Maddow’s style, and Callista Gingrich’s hair, among others. “I apologize for the hurt (the tweets) caused,” reads Grenell’s statement. A more sincere message would have gone something like this: “I attacked people in petty and personal ways because I don’t like their politics, and that is immature and wrong.”

Blame the system. Similarly, pointing fingers at forces beyond your control to deflect responsibility is unlikely to be effective. Disgraced former GSA head Johnson tries to have it both ways in her apology. She accepts responsibility but spends more time explaining that the infamous Vegas junket was well underway when she was appointed and that she was “unaware of the scope.” Weak.

Make it about you. Johnson goes further by expressing sincere regret for the GSA fiasco. Her words are affecting…until the end. “I will mourn for the rest of my life my failed appointment…” is how she closes, but her statement should be more about the taxpayers, not her career. Similarly, in Rush Limbaugh’s apology to Sandra Fluke for calling her a “slut” last month, he spends the bulk of his statement justifying his own outrage over the contraception issue, then ends with the single line, “I sincerely apologize to Ms. Fluke for the insulting word choices.” Not enough, Rush.

Make light. Actually, humor (of the self-deprecating variety) can occasionally work, but it’s highly risky and must be deployed with extreme caution. An exception to the “no humor” rule and my favorite use of self-deprecation may be Robert Scoble’s blunt and refreshing self-indictment for an opinionated rant against an online commenter last year. Scoble was man enough to drink his own (apology-flavored) Kool-Aid in a blog post titled, “How I Made Myself Into An A-Hole.” Well said.