A matter of speech

Speeches matter.

I should disclose at the onset that I am a speechwriter, so you would expect me to say this. If speeches don’t matter, I’m out of a job and I’m one of those poor, hopeless people in a tanking economy that politicians are always talking about in their speeches.

Speeches define what a person believes in and how he or she will address challenges. There are also many subtle messages in speeches that are not stated directly but are implied: attitudes, personality, a sense of humor, fairness, energy, and excitement.

As the votes were being counted in the South Dakota and Montana primaries Tuesday evening (June 3, 2008) we had the incredible opportunity to hear speeches from the three political candidates who have dominated the news this year: John McCain, Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama

It was Obama’s big moment as he went over the top finally capturing enough delegates to declare himself the Democratic Party nominee in the general election. It was an historic moment, and Obama was given the opportunity to speak last. I’m not going to talk about who is best qualified to be president or whom I support. I’m just going to talk about these three speeches and speaking styles because they were very different.

McCain opened the evening with a talk to a relatively small group of people outside New Orleans. The cable news networks said there were about 100 people present. The room was too large for a group that size, making it appear and sound like a very small crowd indeed — especially when a couple thousand were expected for Clinton’s rally and 18,000 for Obama at an arena in St. Paul, Minnesota. In fact, the crowd reaction to McCain’s talk seemed to echo.

McCain’s speech was critical of Obama while going out of its way to court Clinton voters who have been threatening to defect the Democratic Party. Given that Obama is the first African American in our history to be nominated by a major political party, it was a turning point in history that McCain ignored while he did allude to the historic nature of Clinton’s campaign. He spent 64 words praising Clinton. The only positive thing he said about Obama was that he would be “a formidable” opponent whose Democratic Party victory was being “declared by pundits and party leaders.”

McCain had trouble with the Teleprompter and looked very uncomfortable and awkward delivering his talk in front of a green background that didn’t look good on TV. His speechwriter picked up on a theme that had potential: defining Obama’s positions (as McCain sees them) followed by the line : “And that’s not change we can believe in.” It played off Obama’s campaign theme “Change We Can Believe In.”

McCain’s speech should have been delivered with power, force and speed, firing off a series of Obama positions followed by the forceful line “and that’s not change we can believe in.” The speech should have had rhythm and passion. Instead McCain recited the “change” line again and again with a silly Cheshire cat grin on his face and a tone that sounded wishy-washy and like he was in a hurry to get out of there and go to dinner. Negative reaction from the audience to Obama’s positions detracted from the event and what McCain was trying to accomplish. It made the speech sound like it was intended for hardcore McCain voters, when he was actually looking for broad appeal.

This speech had the worst possible outcome for a moment like this. It would have been better if he had not given it at all.

Clinton’s speech came next. It did a good job of stating her issues. The audience responded very enthusiastically. And by not conceding, she succeeded in focusing attention on herself rather than on Obama’s victory. The news story became “what will Hillary do,” instead of “what will Obama do.”

A problem with Clinton’s speech was one that she has repeated throughout this campaign: The use of words such as “I,” “me” and “my.” Her speech was 2,237 words long and I counted “I,” “me” and “my” about 93 times. That means every 24th word she spoke was “I,” “me,” or “my.” About every 12 seconds we heard Clinton talk about herself.

I marked up a copy of her speech using a yellow pen to highlight every “I,” “me” and “my.” The yellow marks are all over the place. In one 25-word sentence she used “I” four times. Listening to Clinton talk, you feel like this is all about her. It’s all about what “I” can do, it’s about “me” and “my” programs. It sounds self-centered.

Given that Clinton’s campaign theme has been “experience” I suppose she has to state what she has done. But I believe there are ways to do this without so much “I,” “me,” and “my” and the result would be better speeches.

McCain used “I,” “me,” and “my” 64 times in a 3,169 word speech, once every 49 words or once every 29 seconds on average. But his use of the words was more grouped (12 of them in one paragraph for impact). He sometimes went several minutes with using them at all.

Obama’s speech was 2,451 words, just slightly longer than Clinton’s talk. I count 28 uses of “I,” “me” and “my” in Obama’s speech. That’s once every 87 words or once every 40 seconds on average.

Better words are ones indicating that what is being accomplished and the challenges being faced are widely shared and success depends on everyone — not just “me.”

Obama used words such as “we,” “our,” “your,” and “us” about 60 times and Clinton used them even more — 77 times. But I think this positive impact was overshadowed by her use of “I,” “me,” and “my.”

Obama gets the speech win for the night. His message was delivered powerfully and grew stronger and stronger as the audience cheered. He did not stop and wait for the crowd reaction to subside before continuing his speech. He just went on, talking louder and the audience response grew louder. It created tremendous excitement.

Obama criticized and complemented McCain almost in the same breath and with an artful “dig:” (“John McCain is a man who has served this country heroically and I respect his many accomplishments even if he chooses to deny mine.”)

There was a little delay in bringing Obama out for his talk and I think that was because they were making changes in his speech, obviously in response to Clinton and McCain.

CNN commentator David Gergen is a professor of public service at Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government and director of its Center for Public Leadership. He is also editor-at-large for U.S. News & World Report and a Senior Political Analyst for CNN. In earlier years, he served as a White House advisor to Presidents Nixon, Ford, Reagan and Clinton. In other words, this guy’s been around.

He compared Obama’s speech and style to Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King. He said we haven’t had a presidential candidate with this incredible speaking ability since Ronal Reagan.

I covered Reagan speeches as a reporter and they were incredible. I remember one he gave in Indianapolis without a prepared text. He just talked from note cards and electrified the crowd. But, I believe Obama is a better speaker than any president or presidential candidate I have heard in my lifetime which dates to the day of Harry Truman.

It takes more than great speeches to make a great President. But the ability to communicate well with people, to give them a vision and to inspire and motivate them to pursue a goal is very important and maybe even critical at this juncture.

Speeches matter.

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