Winning the Political Game: Tricks of Good Speechmaking and Communications

lavarr policy insightsFor political communicators, political conventions are always an opportunity to watch speechmaking and learn lessons from some of the best communicators in the world.

Convention speeches, especially at the national conventions, are really big deals. It’s the opportunity of a lifetime for those invited to speak. Convention speechmakers draft and redraft their speeches for days and weeks ahead, some of them employing top-notch speechwriters.

Speeches sometimes make or break political careers. Barack Obama really broke into national politics with a keynote speech at the 2004 national Democratic convention. In Utah, Mia Love won the Republican congressional nomination outright, in a crowded field, after an excellent speech at the state convention.

I haven’t agreed with much I’ve heard at the Democratic National Convention. But I have to admit there have been some really terrific speeches, and the compelling speeches will help Hillary Clinton.

Remember that every political battle is a communications battle. Most political wins are triumphs of communications. Most political failures are failures of communications. Beyond big conventions, speeches to all sorts of groups can push good policy forward and make a difference.

Obviously, speechmaking comes naturally to some people and not to others. Some people are natural story-tellers; they connect naturally with audiences, comfortably making eye contact and smiling and gesturing; they intuitively speak in a comfortable cadence and they instinctively know how to reach a crescendo, when to raise and lower their voices, when to speak fast and when to speak slowly. They know how words, sentences and phrases worth together to build to a climax.

But anyone can learn to deliver a good speech with enough drafting, redrafting, honing and practice. The best speeches, and good communications in general, include elements like these:

Substance. Don’t give the same stump speech over and over. Speeches before different organizations and groups are opportunities to promote policy positions and win people over. Events drive politics, and speeches are important events. Don’t squander opportunities to significantly impact public policy by failing to deliver a substantive speech on a specific topic or policy. 


Personalize. Years ago, when I was the city editor of what was then Salt Lake City’s afternoon newspaper, a reporter might turn in a story explaining the details of some complex public policy issue. I would often return the story to the reporter with a simple demand: Personalize it! How does the issue impact real people? Tell the story through their perspective. What are some stories and anecdotes that illustrate the essence of the issue?  Good speechmaking and good political communications are no different than compelling journalism.

Symbolize. What communicates the message without having to explain it? What symbols can you communicate that people immediately recognize and make your point without you having to state it?

On the first day of a legislative session many years ago, Utah lawmakers were seen on TV ripping pages out of a Utah Code book to symbolize their desire to eliminate unnecessary laws. In State of the Union speeches, you can count on presidents introducing real people in the audience whose life experiences illustrate points being made in the speech.

In his first gubernatorial campaign, Mike Leavitt communicated his basic values of family devotion, frugality and hard work, not by mentioning or describing those values, but by telling a story about his grandfather and a tractor.

These are all examples of the use of symbols in political communications. Do they work? Of course they do. Like a charm. Do you believe TV news would have done a dry story about Republicans repealing obscure and outdated laws without the visual of them tearing out those pages? Would presidents be as effective as speakers without “real people” symbols?

Would Leavitt have so quickly endeared himself to Utahns without the images of that John Deere tractor and his grandfather telling him that if you do what is “real and right” then things will work out?

People remember symbols. They remember stories and anecdotes that illustrate a point or a value or a priority. They remember how an issue impacts real people. In any political controversy, in any effort at speechmaking or political communications, smart leaders think, “What is the best symbol to use to deliver my message?”

Every political fight is a fight over symbols. It is a battle between “pro-life” and “pro-choice,” between a sick person with a pre-existing condition, and a freedom-loving American forced to purchase health insurance against his or her will.

Simplify. What is the headline? What is the sound bite? If you can’t communicate your message in a headline, you’re not prepared to discuss the issue. It may be a very complicated issue, but someone is going to write a headline about it, or do a 30-second TV sound bite about it. So in your speech you need to communicate the headline, the hook, so it will be remembered and repeated.

These communications tools are especially crucial, because if you don’t develop and use the symbols, the personalization, and the simplification that illustrate the issue according to your framing, you can bet the opposition or the news media (or both) will — and it may not be to your liking.

Here’s a true story: In another state, the government shut down a day care center because of unsafe conditions. One TV crew arrived as an inspector was going through the center and pointed out the safety problems. The story that night focused on the unsafe conditions and the government was the hero.

Another channel’s TV crew arrived on the scene just as a young mother was attempting to drop off her child, only to find the center shut down. The woman was in tears because she had to get to work and had no alternative for her child and she believed the center was safe. In that story, the government was the villain.

Same story. Much different symbols. Much different personalization. Opposite result.

Here’s the lesson: If we don’t communicate through the eyes of real people, the opposition or news media will do it for us. If we don’t reduce the message to a headline, a sound bite, someone will do it for us.

Using symbols, personalization and simplification, we can frame the issue on our terms. Or, we can allow the opposition or news media to frame it on their terms. This applies to speeches, press releases, white papers, talk shows, advertisements, etc.

Whenever a controversy or issue arises, whenever there is an opportunity to give a speech or communicate, a smart politician asks: “What is the substance? What are the symbols? How do I personalize? How do I simplify?”