July 11, 2008
Seven Steps to McCain Narrowing The Speech GapBy Lee Cary
McCain can narrow his speech gap with Obama and improve his chances for victory in November. But it won't be easy and it won't happen around a teleprompter.
To date, McCain's speeches have been blandly written and tepidly delivered. His speeches have failed to inspire. When that happens, the fault often leans toward the content. Only a very strong speaker can deliver a weak speech well. Obama can deliver a weak speech well. McCain cannot.
Both the content and delivery of McCain's speeches must improve. Here are seven steps that can help make that happen. First...
Speakers don't improve unless they want to. Throughout his term as president, George W. Bush needed better verbal communication skills, but showed no interest or effort in improving. Now, McCain is reportedly "working closely with aides like Brett O'Donnell, a former debate consultant for Bush, to improve his speech and performance." Let's hope Mr. O'Donnell has more success with his new client.
If McCain wants to improve, then help him...
Public speakers motivate audiences when they display a passion that the audience shares. When McCain reads a speech (e.g., his Ottawa speech) without passion, it bores. Recommendation: Stop doing it. Have him speak with his natural voice.
To do that...
Put him in a room with smart voters who support him without qualification. Have him talk, unscripted, about major topics being considered for his next speech. Let the citizens ask questions, make comments, even push back. Ask them to point out statements that need clarity and embellishment. And hire a trusted court reporter to transcribe the dialogue.
This setting differs from McCain's favorite town hall Q. & A. event where he paces back-and-forth across the stage holding the microphone in both hands. This would be a smaller group. Everyone seated. No media people present. This is absolutely not a focus group but a trial audience that helps identify language, not define policy. In this setting, McCain's passions will surface. This exchange between speaker and audience, before the speech is outlined and drafted, is crucial input. Think of it as the V.O.C. (Voice Of the Customer).
Take the transcript of this event and...
Write the first draft around the man, not the topics. Match it to his verbal syntax. Craft it for the ear, not the eye. To be heard, not read.
It takes adults a nanosecond to notice when a speaker signals he/she is reading what another wrote. When, for example, a speaker says "difficult" and then immediately corrects it to "different," we figure he not only didn't write the speech, he didn't bother to rehearse it! That's not a good thing to telegraph.
McCain reportedly had a reading problem recently during an energy plan speech in Las Vegas where he had difficulty pronouncing "Lexington." But that incident sounds more like the sort of idiosyncratic word-stumble we all encounter from time-to-time, since he had problems with the same word in an earlier speech. The old news media latched onto it because his presentation skills are such an easy target for criticism.
To overcome any reading problems, first...
Two words, side-by-side, can read great on paper, and sound broken when spoken. A speaker reading words written by another will signal when language doesn't fit his mouth. One need only watch body language and listen to the flow, or absence thereof. If it doesn't slide off the tongue naturally, fix it so it does. And the best person to find the right words is the one who has to say them.
As McCain rehearses the speech aloud...
In politics, as elsewhere, a speech without passion has no pulse. It's D.O.D. - Dead on Delivery. People hunger for leadership that motivates and inspires. Obama's speeches inspire his followers. McCain's life story inspires his. McCain needs to inspire more voters with his passion for how his political beliefs and intentions are better for the country than Obama's. So far, he hasn't done that very well. And if he doesn't do it better, he'll suffer consequences in November.
On June 12, 1987, President Reagan, against the counsel of his advisors, inserted the line, "Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!" into his speech shortly before he delivered it. It expressed his passion. Today it's the only line from that speech that people remember.
On the flip side, remember when Michael Dukakis was asked during a 1988 debate with George H. W. Bush what his opinion would be on the death penalty if his wife was raped and murdered? His unemotional answer had all the passion of responding to a waitress who asks, "You want cream with your coffee?"
Politicians who can't emotionally move voters have a hard time getting elected against opponents who can.
Once the final draft is cast...
A manuscript is hard to read well, even off a teleprompter. A script becomes the speaker's default focus point, and connection with the audience suffers. Delivery becomes flat and choppy. Plus, adults don't like being read to, and haven't since they were read bedtime stories as children to make them sleep. There are techniques to deliver a prepared speech without reading it. Find one that works for McCain and use it. It'll differentiate him from Obama the Teleprompter Jockey.
Consider this unconventional and very scary advice: Jettison the teleprompter. That's right - lose it. It's an unnecessary crutch. Few in the audience are fooled by it. And every word not said to a pair of eyes becomes less important than words spoken to peoples' faces. Every sentence split-delivered in ping-pong fashion between teleprompter mirrors, right-left-right, has less impact than a full sentence spoken while the speaker's eyes are focused on a live human being. Simplify the text and talk to people's faces. Every single word.
That's enough unsolicited advice aimed toward McCain's campaign as it puts itself together, again. According to the article linked above entitled "McCain works hard to polish skills as orator," he's getting conflicting advice from multiple directions. Some of it no doubt useless.
Even those of us who have supported President Bush have found his communication skills lacking, to be kind. That weakness has had a significant negative effect on his presidency. (In the West, we miss the clarity and force of Tony Blair's voice.) Now, as Bush ends his term in office, he has no incentive to improve.
McCain, on the other, has every incentive to improve. In November, people will vote, in part, for the voice they most want to listen to for the next four, perhaps eight, years. It's not the determining factor for all voters, but it does factor in somewhere for most.
And, yes, William Jennings Bryan lost three presidential elections despite his superior public speaking skills. But that was then.