A friend who’s active in politics recently assessed a certain campaign’s chances this way: “Their paid media efforts won’t get over the fact that their candidate is a poor communicator.”
I’ve experienced that same truth many times in the campaigns I’ve worked on as a speech and media coach. Media buys, online outreach and other paid media efforts can quickly suck up all the oxygen in the political space, leaving the campaign’s star—the candidate—gasping for attention.
Your candidate doesn’t need to be the world’s greatest communicator, but if it’s not their strength they must commit to working on it. The bottom line is that even a wealth of resources and a willingness to spend them won’t cover up that basic fact.
Whether you think of politics idealistically (the art of the possible) or cynically (a blood sport), there’s no denying that it’s a performance art and candidates have to play to that reality. Much of the movement in the race for the Republican presidential nomination over the past few months has come courtesy of debate performances and key moments on the stump—all of which hinge on the ability of individual candidates to communicate effectively with voters and embrace the stage.
In my experience, campaigns can only fake it for so long. TV ads in which the candidate himself or herself doesn’t appear, debates that require only rehearsed bromides on “what the American people want” or a stated preference for Coke or Pepsi, do nothing more than help hide a candidate’s mediocre communication skills.
Eventually, candidates need to find real ways to move me—the voter. What ultimately persuades me is the person running for office and what he or she shows me. And that means you need a candidate who knows the art of political performance.
Because you see, I’m a demanding audience. If you want my vote, your candidate needs to be compelling. From meet-and-greets to political breakfasts to handshakes at the factory gates; all the way up to stump speeches, televised debates, broadcast interviews, and paid media—your candidate must both convince and move me. Dare I say he or she needs to rouse my passions and make my blood sing?
W.H. Auden once said, “A great actor can break your heart at 50 feet.” That’s the mantle your candidate should aspire to. Fortunately, the techniques you need to make your candidate unforgettable are readily at hand. They’re the tools of the theater.
The identical techniques actors use on stage and in films to captivate hearts and minds are the ones that you can use to make voters pull the desired lever in the voting booth. Actors understand better than anyone in the world how to move audiences. Your candidate can and should use the same techniques to deliver vote-getting performances.
Here are 10 techniques that candidates need to know and practice if they want to excel at the art of political performance:
1. Total Authenticity: This is the most important of all performance techniques based in the theater. When you speak in situations that matter, what makes you successful is the fullness of your communication in conveying your authentic message. In speaking powerfully, you draw upon all of your means of expression: physical presence, voice, gestures and story, along with your content.
You must never think your job as a speaker is to convey information. Instead, it’s to give audiences the complete you joined with that urgent message. And that means total commitment. To persuade, you need to speak from the gut without a thought to how foolish or exposed you feel. Otherwise all of your policy prescriptions will sound as though they’re made of air.
2. Live in the Moment: Presence is a term that is used often but seldom defined. Where stage performance is concerned, it means being “there” for one’s fellow actors. On the political stage, those colleagues are your audience. They’re the ones depending upon you to give them something true that they can believe in and act upon.
Don’t wear blinders that keep you too focused on your talking points while ignoring the people in front of you. Live in the moment. Remember that voters want you to be bold, not careful (front-runners, take note). Invest yourself fully—intellectually and emotionally—in the message you’re trying to get across. Disappear into that message and by the magic of performance you will emerge with great power. If you want to understand how total concentration mesmerizes, watch Robert Shaw when he speaks of the sinking of the U.S.S. Indianapolis in the movie “Jaws.”
3. Breathing for Speech: Most of us breathe shallowly. To project a strong presence (and to be heard at the back of a crowd), diaphragmatic breathing is necessary. Such belly breathing produces a full, resonant voice that has the sound of authority. It’s the ideal method for producing powerfully persuasive speech.