Mitt Romney is an energized man—and not only because he’ll be accepting his party’s nomination for president tonight. Romney’s speaking abilities steadily improved throughout the long Republican primary season. But his choice of Paul Ryan as his running mate seems to have jolted Romney awake and given him a more accessible, believable and slightly more exciting speaking persona.
In the nick of time too, as far as Thursday’s all-important acceptance speech is concerned. The question is will it be enough? Can Romney leave behind the sometimes stodgy debater we’re familiar with, firing up not only the faithful in Tampa but the rest of America besides? Can he achieve the breakthrough on everyone’s lips: will he become human enough?
Equally important: can he find a theme for this campaign in the time remaining to him, one that gives meaning to his quest apart from ambition and his personal view that President Obama has mismanaged the business of America?
The Ryan Effect
Republicans from across the political spectrum have demonstrated their enthusiasm and delight at the selection of Ryan. Americans in general are only beginning to feel the Ryan effect. But for Mitt Romney, it’s already paying dividends in terms of his stage presence and effectiveness on the stump.
Television audiences saw this clearly in the August 11 announcement in Norfolk, Va. of Ryan’s selection. Romney has rarely looked so relaxed, and so much like a man enjoying the opportunity to speak. This sense of a candidate in his element should only grow now that, in the words of Fred Barnes in the Wall Street Journal, “the looming fiscal crisis, Medicare, and the size and role of government are front and center of the campaign.”
The vitality Romney seems to draw from his partnership with Ryan will be a crucial element of his acceptance speech tonight. All convention speeches demand a level of rhetorical energy that far surpasses the requirements of a stump speech. Ronald Reagan’s extraordinary ad-libbed speech at the 1976 Republican convention when, in defeat, he was invited to speak by President Ford, is an excellent example of how a convention speech can soar above everyday political fare.
Romney, like Obama next week, must rise to that challenge. Unlike the president, he now has the advantage of a running mate who is inspiring rather than cringe-inducing.
Will the Man on the Wedding Cake Come Magically to Life?
Can Romney get past the disadvantages of wealth, a happy marriage, an inspirational hairline, a beautiful and devoted wife (who delivered a terrific speech Tuesday night), and five handsome sons to finally make something of himself? Whether driven by envy, the relentless personal attacks by Democrats this campaign season, or his own managerial style of delivery, Romney is often seen as the man on the wedding cake or Uncle Pennybags in Monopoly.
It didn’t help that he had to share the stage in the primary season with the spicier Republican brands of Herman Cain, Newt Gingrich, Michelle Bachmann and Rick Perry.
Given the way the perception of “the guy who fired you” has hardened in people’s minds, viewers will naturally wonder whether the stage in Tampa can magically give life to the Wedding Cake Man when he makes his way to the podium.
In person, Romney is a poised, somewhat careful speaker. But he is not a boring one. His mind, and—unlike the two Bush presidents—his discourse is fluid, disciplined, organized, and persuasive. It’s true that he’s not comfortable selling himself. But he possesses an essential ingredient of both a successful communicator and inspiring politician: he is true to himself. Whatever one feels about Romney’s changing positions, he gives the impression that he will not compromise his essential personality to try to be something and someone he’s not.
Former George W. Bush speechwriter Michael Gerson told the story recently of Bush preparing for his acceptance speech at the 2000 convention. The future president told Gerson, “Win or lose, people will know who I am from this speech.”
In that election and the one following four years later, the country saw a George W. Bush who stayed true to that sentiment. His opponents, Al Gore and John Kerry, though both far more articulate speakers, were never able to match Bush’s level of authenticity and genuineness, either at their conventions or on the debate stage. And so the least capable communicator by far was able to close the deal with the American voter largely because he stayed true to himself as a speaker.
Romney appears to share both the sentiment and the discipline to try and accomplish a similar feat in his acceptance speech. For all the talk about how he has to let his hair down, he should resist any attempt to become the Alpha Male he isn’t, the performer more concerned with effect than the truth of the performance.
Romney’s Vocal Challenges
In talking to America, Romney must invest himself in his material in a way that he appears to find difficult. The logical and well organized arguments he makes often have a whiff of managerial decision-making about them. The blood in their veins flows green rather than red; they appear to have been organized around a board table rather than the kitchen table. In the end, of course, it is emotion not argument that moves voters and tells them that their hearts and a candidate’s are in synch.
Given his upbringing, Romney may have learned early in life that passion should not be displayed too openly. Now, however, he must appear more open. If he can remind himself of how deeply he feels about America’s problems and his ability to solve them, his voice and demeanor will reflect that passion, and we will see and feel it.
He has to keep the energy level up, and especially, to watch his falling inflections. In English, the most important words or phrases usually come at the end of a sentence: “To be or not to be, that is the QUESTION.” Speakers, however, often work against their own best interest by adopting a sing-song quality that drops the crucial end-of-sentence word instead of emphasizing it. Romney does this. If he can concern himself more with his message and the need to get it across than his own performance, he should be able to make the words come alive.
Romney has a deep and resonant voice, which has a tendency to calm and reassure. He is conversational, a key speaking skill for leaders, who must give the impression that they’re talking to the individual audience member rather than to a crowd. For months now he has been finding a balance between his naturally reserved style and the enthusiasm and sheer likeability he needs to display to motivate and inspire. His convention speech will be the supreme test of whether he can blend conversationality and competence with such personal attraction, while reaching the rhetorical heights necessary in a convention acceptance speech.
Can he tell the story of his quest for the presidency and his desire to lead America back to greatness? Will he speak movingly of his faith and the ways it has shaped his life and his concern for others? Will he use humor that will allow us to peek past the curtain to the man inside? As Americans, will we hear a human being we’re willing to invite into our living rooms for the next four years?
Gary Genard is founder and president of Public Speaking International, a political speech training company located in Boston.