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.
4. Controlled Tension: Being relaxed is nice, but not if you have all the strength of a cooked noodle. Controlled tension, on the other hand, means you are calm yet still poised for action. Actors need to stay relaxed yet taut, ready to respond with power while making it all look easy. Practice focusing your energy in this way, relaxing your body but remaining completely energized. You’ll also be able to think on your feet and respond effectively to what audiences (and opponents) are giving you. Robert DeNiro’s performance in “Heat” is a superb example of controlled tension.
5. Improvisation: Few tools of the theater are as enjoyable as improv. Use this tool to help you think quickly and act appropriately. There is an eternal “Yes” involved in improv. This means that everything is accepted for the sake of the exercise; nothing is resisted or rejected. Campaign staffers should throw not only difficult questions, but unlikely situations at their candidate to see how well they react. Then you can work on the weak spots. In the end, it will make your candidate more nimble and quick-thinking. Prepare your candidate to not only survive but thrive in speeches and debates and to be ready to handle anything that may come their way. Even if you determine your candidate isn’t the best on their feet and you discourage improv at events, at least you’ve prepped them for that curveball they’re bound to get at some point during the campaign.
6. Beats and Intentions: This is one of the most interesting applications of dramatic techniques to politics. Actors pay close attention to the motives and intentions that drive a character’s behavior. Each “beat” is the attempt by a character in the play or film to achieve what is desired. As soon as that desire is fulfilled or frustrated, another beat begins.
Beats can be a powerful tool for debate preparation. Here a candidate must be passionate in making a point, yet able to be equally forceful on a separate issue. The range of areas covered can be vast—quickly moving from domestic to foreign policy, for instance. A candidate clear on his or her purpose at each stage of a debate owns a powerful tool for getting audiences to think, feel, and do what he or she wants them to.
7. Vocal Dynamics: Want your candidate to influence others when speaking? Want them to engender trust in constituents? To grab the attention of a listener and keep them engaged during every single minute of a speech or debate? To accomplish these tasks, your candidate needs to learn how to use the voice. It’s the most subtle communication tool we own. Not everyone can be a great orator, but every candidate can boost his or her vocal skills to speak more powerfully.
8. Body Expressiveness: Standing and moving with authority can make the difference between a visually boring speech and a memorable one. Dynamic speakers look the part. It’s a truth so obvious we often don’t give it attention and respect: effective nonverbal communication is essential for successful speaking. It may be time to get your candidate out of the head and into the body.
9. Storytelling: Delivering positions and policy is one thing, telling a story is another. To connect with voters and propel them to vote for you, tell moving stories every time you speak. Stories are filled with drama and they’re all about people, which is why everyone responds positively to them. Every good speaker learns how to find their true voice through personal stories, and to use anecdotes that show a connection to their material. Storytelling is an unparalleled technique for showing audiences how committed you are to the humanity in your message.
10. Using Language: The greatest writer who ever lived was a dramatist, and there’s no one like Shakespeare for teaching us about the power of language. Bring your audience’s imagination to life through the language of your speeches, prepared remarks, opening and closing statements and media appearances. Vivid language adds color and impact.
Language used powerfully reminds us of the link between sound and sense, and of the emotional punch spoken language can carry. Short, powerful sentences work best. Deploy the English language like this and you’ll immediately be set apart from your opponents. Your speeches will sing and people will remember you and what you stand for. Perhaps the best practitioner of this kind of word usage today is playwright and screenwriter David Mamet. Remove his off-color language—of which there is plenty—and you will still have a great idea of how hard-hitting truly inspired word choices can be.
A final recommendation for candidates and campaigns: indulge your love of great scenes from your favorite dramas and movies. If a scene or performance moves you, tell your candidate; and candidate, watch it. Hollywood movies have audiences cheering at the end for a reason. Look closely at what’s happening in those scenes, and consider how that emotion might play in your campaign.
Put aside your media contact list for a moment and leave those social media sites. Reintroduce yourself to great drama for the sake of a great political campaign.
Gary Genard is founder and president of Public Speaking International, a communication skills and media training company based in Boston.