In my 30 years in politics, I have heard a lot of speeches. Frankly, most are terrible.
Candidates speak too long, and they talk far too much about themselves. A poorly constructed speech is nothing more than a missed opportunity to engage and energize your audience.
Now, if you’re running for office at the state or local level, you don’t necessarily need to employ a speechwriter to avoid this fate. Over the course of a months-long campaign, you simply need to create consistency is your speeches the same way you would in your ads and other message vehicles. One of the most effective ways to do this is with a well-crafted introduction and stump speech. They will allow the campaign to maintain a uniform message over time, but still allow it enough flexibility to engage with different audiences.
Envision a jazz ensemble. They probably won’t just show up at the venue and launch into a 45-minute improvisational odyssey. The group will have gotten together in advance to form and practice a set list of songs that will give them room to improvise to get the crowd going. Your introduction and stump speech serve as your songs, which will provide a foundation around which you can tailor your remarks to the audience of the day.
Here are seven tips to help you keep your speeches consistent, yet memorable:
1. Hone your message with research
If you have a speech in front of a specific organization on your campaign schedule, make sure you do the proper research ahead of time. Your words and your message should be tailored, at least in part, to what is relevant to your specific audience.
Winning candidates know a campaign is about the voters; losing candidates think a campaign is about them. The meat of your stump speech will stay the same at each venue, but you should regularly “tweak” the top and bottom each time to make it relevant to the audience. Audiences tend to give little weight to a candidate whose comments are not relevant to their interests and concerns.
2. 40 percent of a good speech is the set up
Be sure your introduction leaves a positive impression. Most of your audience will disregard what you said two hours after the speech is over. After a day or two, 98 percent of what you said is forgotten. What they will remember is how you were introduced and what qualities or experiences you bring to the office you are seeking.
Have a strong, common introduction read at every venue. Don’t leave it up to the person introducing you to weave your strengths through their introduction. They won’t. Spend time creating an introduction that makes you the expert and conveys to the audience you are important. Most importantly, find a way to make sure the person who introduces you actually uses that intro.
3. Keep it short and to the point
People have a short attention span for speeches, especially for political speeches. I have only witnessed two politicians in my lifetime who could hold an audience for a considerable period of time and who told great stories at the same time: Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton. You are neither.
It takes years and thousands of speeches to be a dynamic presenter. Don’t risk losing an audience by delivering too many thoughts and ideas. My secret is to speak in threes: “Today, I want to make three points—one, two, three.” Make them and then summarize them at the end by restating them. Then stop and thank people for their attention.
Once you have your stump speech written, practice it once with a stopwatch. The gap between how long you thought it was and how long the watch says it was will surprise you. Adjust accordingly. You will know when you are speaking too long as members of the audience will not look at you, frequently check their email, text others or even fidget in their seats. Brevity will make you distinctive. As a candidate, the last thing you want to be is boring.
4. Use just enough concise facts to make your point
You need to strike a balance between providing empirical evidence to give your speech credibility and offering so many facts that people get lost in the data. Ineffective speakers confuse their audience with too many numbers and statistics. Despite their best intentions, members of your audience are not paying as much attention as you are to the point you are making. Many speakers believe people will think they are more knowledgeable if they use more facts. The opposite is true. Using just a few facts keeps the focus on you and your vision. It keeps the audience out of the confusing weeds.
5. Practice. Memorize. Practice.
Jack Valenti, the late CEO of the Motion Picture Industry Association of America, once told me he spent six to seven times longer practicing and memorizing his speech than actually composing it. And he was a very engaging and dynamic speaker. I was once with him when he spoke to an audience of 3,000 plus, and you could hear a pin drop as people were entranced by both the content and delivery style. His book, “Speak up with Confidence,” is a great investment. Bottom line: you can’t practice your speech too much.
6. Deliver your speech with authenticity and passion
The audience will forget the words. They will forget the grammatical mistakes you might make during the presentation. But they will remember your authenticity, and especially your passion. No matter your political party, ideology or ideas, Americans are drawn to people who demonstrate sincere passion about their beliefs. It signals to them the candidate is real. Now, I am not suggesting that you pound your fists, cry, scream or be overly dramatic. But I am suggesting that you show your true self to the audience so they can connect with you.
Finally, enjoy your presentations. Smile and ensure that you are having fun during the campaign. You can believe in serious ideas, but you also need to be likeable. It reminds voters you are just like them. Being authentic and passionate will never fail you.
7. Conclude your speech on an optimistic note
Whatever you are speaking about or to whomever you are speaking to, end with inspiration and optimism.
No matter what the challenge you are addressing (bad schools, gangland terror, lack of jobs), your audience will want to know we are all “in it together” and that united, the challenge can be overcome. By their nature, Americans are an optimistic people. Our country has overcome obstacles since our founding patriots decided to battle what was the greatest army in the world. Successful leaders not only lay out the problems, but also provide a roadmap in the future.
One last tip: if you haven’t had much experience as a public speaker, start with smaller venues that will put less pressure on you. That way your audience will see it not as a speech, but more of a discussion. Once you have confidence and have mastered this format, keep increasing the size of the venue.
Using these tips as a guide, your stump speech and introduction—and the event-specific tweaks you make to them—should be able to accomplish the goal of selling yourself to voters.
David Rehr, PhD, is an adjunct professor at the Graduate School of Political Management (GSPM) at George Washington University. He is CEO of TransparaGov, Inc., and former president and CEO of the National Association of Broadcasters.