Remember the minor scandal that erupted when President Obama and Chief Justice John Roberts flubbed the lines of the Oath of Office in 2009? Afterward I suggested that it would have been wise for Roberts to have used a script or at least had some notes handy if he needed to consult them. The problem with reciting legalistic language like an oath–or wedding vows, for that matter–is that you have to get it exactly right, even though it doesn’t exactly sound or feel natural. Otherwise you run the risk of having to redo the ceremony (like they did at the White House in 2009), just to make sure it takes.
So I was excited to see that the official swearing on Sunday went off without a hitch, and that Roberts had come to his senses and used notes. Too bad they didn’t leave it at that. Unfortunately, the big ceremonial oath that was televised on Monday didn’t go quite as smoothly. Obama gets a little lost and swallows his words on the phrase “the office of President of the United States.” It wasn’t a disaster, but I’m sure it wasn’t the performance he wanted to give. Especially after what happened four years ago. At least this time they had the sense to hold the legal ceremony the day before.
It just goes to show you that even talented people who are used to speaking in public can get flustered by the stress of important events. If you have to make a public statement that you have to get exactly right, if the stakes are high or if the words you have to say are complicated or hard to remember because they aren’t your own, there’s no shame in using notes to help you keep your place. If you’re introducing someone and there’s even a remote chance that you’ll get their name wrong, please just write it somewhere that you’ll have it in front of you. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been introduced as “Corey.”
You certainly don’t want to read an entire speech to an audience without ever making eye contact with them, but notes, an outline, or a short text that you want to quote verbatim can be very helpful. Just try to use them unobtrusively and naturally. Chances are people won’t even think twice about it, and using a few notes are definitely better than potentially provoking a constitutional crisis.
This Times recap of the 2012 election has some really interesting behind-the-scenes information about the first presidential debate and how President Obama essentially botched it by underestimating his opponent and not being well-enough prepared. At one point he even ditched his debate prep sessions in Las Vegas to tour Hoover Dam! The problem became clear to the President’s team almost immediately in Denver:
Shortly after the debate began, Mr. Obama’s aides realized they had made their own mistakes in advising Mr. Obama to avoid combative exchanges that might sacrifice the good will many Americans felt toward him. In Mr. Obama’s mock debates with Senator John Kerry, a Massachusetts Democrat, Mr. Kerry drew Mr. Obama into a series of intense exchanges, and Mr. Axelrod decided that they were damaging to the president.
In 90 minutes, Mr. Obama crystallized what had been gnawing concerns among many Americans about the president. He came across, as Mr. Obama’s advisers told him over the next few days, as professorial, arrogant, entitled and detached from the turmoil tearing the nation. He appeared to be disdainful not only of his opponent but also of the political process itself. Mr. Obama showed no passion for the job, and allowed Mr. Romney to explode the characterization of him as a wealthy, job-destroying venture capitalist that the Obama campaign had spent months creating.
Preparation is critical for any public speaking event, and it’s important no matter how good or comfortable you are at talking to an audience. It may be hard for us mere mortals to understand, but the failure to prepare is a common mistake of talented speakers like our president. They’re so sure of their own abilities that they don’t do the necessary work and they can bomb like Obama did in his first debate with Mr Romney.
Whatever your own skills and experience as a public speaker, don’t let this happen to you. Make sure that you know what you want to say, that you understand your audience, and that you’re setting the right tone and projecting the right image for your message.
Here’s a pretty amazing document, a redline showing the difference between Bill Clinton’s prepared speech (which was what he saw on the teleprompters) and what he actually said in the best-reviewed speech of either convention this year. What’s most impressive is how he was able to embellish what was already there while keeping the flow of his argument intact and making the whole thing sound natural.
Despite the disapproval from some corners of the political universe, speeches like these are typically read from teleprompters for a reason–it’s very difficult for most human beings to deliver an extended speech without losing some details or rhetorical flourishes in the language. Of course it’s possible to memorize a speech word for word like an actor might, but the result usually sounds robotic and stilted. But this speech has none of those problems and probably does a better job of engaging the audience than what he had written would have.
Still, I wouldn’t recommend this kind of riffing as a strategy for beginners. Clinton’s ability to take the script in front of him and augment it on the fly shows what a pro he is, and how confident he was that no one would mind his going a little long…
Despite the fact that an election season like this one provides a wealth of material, I usually avoid commenting on political speeches. But I’m going to make an exception for Michelle Obama’s speech last night because, even if you didn’t understand or agree with a word of what she said, it would be difficult to argue that she didn’t deliver an incredible performance. She was warm, funny, and seemed comfortable on that huge stage. Best of all, she used personal stories to illustrate her ideas instead of making political attacks.
Back in July the President said that his biggest failure had been his inability to tell the story of his first term. Maybe he should have let his wife do it earlier and more often.
How important is storytelling in your ability to persuade?
According to President Obama, the biggest mistake of his presidency has been his failure to craft a narrative of his first three years in office:
The mistake of my first term—couple of years—was thinking that this job was just about getting the policy right. And that’s important. But the nature of this office is also to tell a story to the American people that gives them a sense of unity and purpose and optimism, especially during tough times.
Whether you see this as a humblebrag (which seems likely) or not, it highlights the importance of storytelling in a presidential campaign, which may be the most drawn-out, expensive presentation in history. Your presentations may not be on quite this scale, but your ability to shape your presentation as a narrative is the key factor in persuading any audience.
Whatever kind of presentation you find yourself doing, it’s critical that you engage your audience and find a way to relate to them. But that doesn’t mean that you should pander or pretend to be something you’re not. Audiences are very good at detecting insincerity and are as unlikely to be swayed by an inauthentic performance as they are by Jason Sudeikis as Mitt Romney in this Saturday Night Live skit. They may not shout “we don’t believe you,” but they’ll probably be thinking it.
Remember to be yourself, but the best version of yourself possible.
It should probably go without saying that comedians, presidential candidates, and other public speakers probably shouldn’t all use the same strategies for dealing with hecklers or difficult audience members. Their objectives are very different, for one thing. Comedians are trying to entertain while public speakers and politician are hoping to persuade and win votes. Still this article from Slate does have some good advice for speakers, despite the fact that the comedians reviewing the performances of the Republican candidates don’t always seem to understand that politicians’ goals are different from their own. The advice that Rick Santorum “should have thrown the mic down and walked off” seems particularly tone-deaf.
Unless it’s a joke, of course.
But I really like Paul F. Tompkins’ analysis of how Mitt Romney deals with a heckler:
“He handles it like a pro,” says Tompkins. “You don’t cut the heckler off. You let her go. Give ’em enough rope. Use the time she’s babbling to craft your comeback. Then BAM. You unleash your zinger with a smile. They come at you again? Same thing. Keep indulging her until the crowd completely turns on the heckler. Which they will—you’ve been smiling the while time, letting her say her piece, right? The crowd can’t be mad at you—you’re just being polite in a funny way! But just insulting enough that they taste a little blood in their mouths! THIS WOMAN MUST BE SILENCED AND THEY WILL GLADLY DO THAT FOR YOU! GUARDS, SEIZE HER!”
Most public speakers and politicians (Newt Gingrich excepted) probably aren’t focused on “zinging” their audience members. But letting the difficult audience member or heckler keep talking can be a great strategy. It often lets them dig themselves a hole without you having to do anything and, as Tompkins points out, turns the rest of the audience against them.
Dealing with a difficult audience member is never, well, easy. But it helps if you can remember that most of the audience is probably on your side.