By Steve Grubbs
In 2004, the junior senator from Illinois, Barack Obama, gave a compelling speech at the Democrat National Convention that propelled him onto the national state and ultimately into the White House.
In 1964, Hollywood Actor, Ronald Reagan, made a similarly impactful speech that launched his political career into the California Governor’s mansion and ultimately, the White House.
We know that a powerful and compelling stump speech can motivate and persuade both the party faithful as well as undecided voters. But not everyone can be Ronald Reagan or Barack Obama. That being said, every candidate can - with preparation and practice - give a strong speech as they campaign for office. Toward that end, here are a few tips I’ve picked up over the years:
1. As you give your speech, think in terms of football commentators during a televised game. There are generally two, the play-by-play announcer and the color commentator. For the most part, color commentary fills up about 70% of the time and play-by-play 30%. A speech is the same. Play-by-play is your analysis, facts and explanation of issues or the campaign landscape. Color commentary are the stories, humor and shocking facts that wrap around your analysis and facts. Ronald Reagan was a masterful story teller and because of this, his speeches were as much entertainment as they were dry political analysis.
2. Organize your speech in a framework that makes sense. First, a colorful introduction. Second, an explanation of the problem - which is probably the reason you are running for office. Third, define your solutions. Fourth, define your opponent’s wrong direction. And fifth, bring it home by painting a picture of life or a particular part of this world that is better once your solution is implemented.
3. Humor matters. People are more open to your message when they are smiling and laughing. Don’t limit your remarks to one canned joke at the beginning. Feel free to drop self-deprecating stories throughout with a smattering of one liners when the subject material begins to get dry. Humor can be hard so be sure to practice. Start by practicing in front of a mirror, then move onto a real crowd. Just because humor doesn’t work the first time you try it, doesn’t mean you can’t massage it and try it again. The world’s best comedians are constantly writing new material and testing it until it works. If it never seems to catch on, then pitch it and try something else. But delivering humorous lines is like everything else in life, the more time you invest into getting it right, the more likely you will be to succeed.
4. Study speeches that work. With YouTube today, it’s easier than ever to watch people who are good at giving speeches. TedX speeches are a good example and there are a lot of highly rated speeches to watch. But you can also search for the Reagan and Obama speeches that were mentioned earlier. But one of my favorite speeches of all time was actually given by a high school student and one you might know: Josh Gad. Josh is a very successful Hollywood movie star and the voice of the Snowman in Disney’s popular animated film, Frozen. But he really showed his future star quality when he was competing in the final round of the National Forensic League’s oratory finals. His speech not only won first place, but many seasoned high school speech coaches consider it the best they’ve ever seen. You can find it by searching on YouTube for ‘Josh Gad NFL Oratory Finals.’
5. Use questions to your advantage. Paloma Cantero-Gomez wrote a column for Forbes that had this to say about questions: “Get audience feedback in real-time. Finding out what your public is thinking while you are presenting can help not just to keep them awake but also to potentially slightly tweak the presentation as you go... Praise people's questions….Everybody likes to feel intelligent. Answer every question. Even if you do not have a very clear response. 'I am not sure but let me consult it and come back to you' is always better than making people feel ignored. Ask them if it is okay to move on.
6. Personalize your remarks. Most of your speeches will have different and unique audience locations and will likely be in different locations and cities. Use this to your advantage. If you can personalize your remarks to the community or the people in the room, leave enough flexibility in your speech to do so. It might be a factory that closed, a shooting in a local neighborhood or a local hero that deserves recognition, but each of these instances give the audience a closer connection to the person speaking.
Without a doubt, the stump speech matters for a candidate. People take cues from what a candidate says and how it is presented. It’s easy to shortchange preparation for a candidate’s remarks, but great candidates find a way to invest the time that a stump speech needs to be successful.
Steve Grubbs is a former state representative from the State of Iowa, as well as State Party Chairman. He has consulted for six presidential campaigns as well as hundreds of state and local candidates. He also coached high school speech and debate for ten years.