TI's Conversation With Chris Matthews

TI's Conversation With Chris Matthews

The host of MSNBC's Hardball with Chris Matthews
talks about Toastmasters, political rhetoric and his new book.

By Suzanne Frey

Recently, the Toastmaster asked Chris Matthews, well-known “Hardball with Chris Matthews” American television talk show host, journalist and outspoken political commentator, to discuss his experiences as a Toastmaster and speechwriter, his thoughts on political oratory, and the communication skills of the current crop of candidates and politicians. Matthews is the author of a new book, Life is a Campaign, as well as four other books, and hosts the weekly The Chris Matthews Show in addition to the weekday Hardball show on MSNBC.

Toastmaster: Your book, Now, Let Me Tell You What I really Think, mentions you were once a member of Toastmasters, while working as a staffer on Capitol Hill in the 1970s. How did you find out about Toastmasters and why did you join?

Matthews: During my years on Capitol Hill, I was always working on my speechwriting and public speaking skills. I accepted every speaking opportunity regardless of the group.

I joined the Capitol Hill chapter of Toastmasters. While other staffers were content just knowing their stuff, I forced myself to practice getting that stuff across to other people. I desperately needed to overcome my stage fright.

I couldn’t sleep at night. Whenever I had to speak publicly, it got to me. But practice makes perfect. I really think practicing is such an important part of everything. And now I’m good at it! I don’t get nervous at all – even when I did the Tonight Show with Jay Leno and walked into a roomful of thousands of people, it didn’t bother me.

Oratory is everything. My hero, Winston Churchill, said, “If you can speak in public, you’ll have an amazing power, amazing independence.”

Toastmaster: What did Toastmasters teach you that you didn’t already know?

Matthews: I learned that being supportive of other people is very important. As a speaker, you have to know that there are people out there rooting for you – more than you might believe. There is a perceived threat that somehow the audience is out to get you. But they aren’t. They have no interest for you to do badly.... They came to [the presentation], they must want it to be successful.

A chapter in my new book, Life is a Campaign, is classic Toastmasters:

  • Start with an ice breaker
  • Next, give some anecdotes about people in the room,
  • Then, in a few seconds, tell why you are there; what’s the point of that talk.
  • Then, give another warm-up, so the audience gets used to the sound of your voice and realize you are a good guy, that you care about them and connect with them.

Basically, there is a pattern. If you follow a very clear structure, you’ll give a great speech. You don’t have to worry about writing a great speech – it will compose itself if you follow this simple structure. And that sounds like classic Toastmasters. That’s probably where I learned a lot of it.

Toastmaster: How long were you a member of Toastmasters?

Matthews: A while…maybe a year.

Toastmaster: You say in your book that being a presidential speechwriter was the most fun job you had until landing the hosting job on Hardball. Is there a speech you’ve delivered or written that you are especially proud of?

Matthews: There were two speeches in New York: The first was for the Friendly Sons of St. Patrick right after September 11. [New York Mayor Michael] Bloomberg, [Rudy] Giuliani, [former New York Governor George] Pataki and other big-name people were there. I spoke at the Sheraton, giving the main address – Bloomberg gave one, and I gave one. It was the best speech I ever gave. It all was about the victims of 9/11.

I also gave a speech at the Pennsylvania Society gathering in New York [in December 2005], about the opportunities of America and how this is a different country from most countries. It doesn’t matter who your family is, where you come from, but what matters is what you can do. Very different from Europe.

Toastmaster: How about any speeches from your time as a White House speechwriter?

Matthews: I also wrote for President Carter [promoting] a youth bill – a bill for helping young people in the spring of 1980. I wrote a lot of his political speeches; obviously they weren’t that successful. They didn’t work. I wrote for him a year and quarter as a speechwriter.

Toastmaster: On Hardball with Chris Matthews, you are famous for your feisty, hard-hitting approach, forcing guests to answer questions they may not want to answer. Is this a persona you developed specifically for Hardball?

Matthews: I can’t let [guests on the show] get away with propaganda. There has to be a limit of what people can drop on television. Just because they have a mike, they can’t just come on and dump stuff that hasn’t been challenged. Live television is too uninhibited for that. You have to find a way to inhibit, to control and challenge [what people are saying]. Or else they’ll just come and drop stuff. And people think, “It must be true because you let them say it.” People tell me, “Why did you let them say that?” In fact, I’m liable, legally liable, for what people say on my show.

My goal is to cover the county’s politics. My main weakness as a journalist is that I love politicians.

Toastmaster: In one of your books, you say, “I’m a ‘tummler’ – someone at a resort hired to stir things up.” Do you “shake things up” to keep people from coming on your show with an agenda?

Matthews: I love it when I can zing guests for using talking points… I think people like to see people on television being challenged. The most comments I get from viewers are along the lines of, “Keep holding their feet to the fire; stay at them; don’t let up.”

Toastmaster: What do you think of the public speaking skills of current politicians compared to those of previous generations?

Matthews: They are not very good. I think Rudy Giuliani and Jesse Jackson are good. Giuliani is the best. He is the only guy who can hold a room – he can actually stop talking and the pauses, themselves, hold the room....The Clintons were okay. [Former New York Mayor Mario] Cuomo was great. I thought Schwarzenegger gave a really good speech at the last [Republican National] Convention.

But there are not many good speakers this time. I think Obama is a great speaker. I saw him at the last [Democratic National] Convention. He is a great writer too. I think the two great speakers today are Rudy and Obama. Style has changed. All you have to do now is come on and answer questions. You can be somewhat impressive by just answering questions. But to be able to just stand there and hold the room for a half hour, that’s truly impressive. People like Kennedy and Nixon, those guys were maybe the last of a breed. They could stand there and wing it, basically. Kennedy – in the first eight minutes of his [1960] debate with Nixon, won the election. An amazing performance.

                    “Toastmasters changed my life. They really did. Put me on the stage.
                    I don’t know what I would have done without that positive boost.”

Toastmaster: Would you recommend Toastmasters membership to politicians?

Matthews: Definitely, They can use it. It’s basic training – they don’t even have the basics of how to put a speech together: How to write and organize a speech. How to structure a speech in the car [to an engagement] and make it an interesting talk. They end up winging it, standing up there and just doing it by stream-of-consciousness, which is not worthy of them. I don’t think they really try – it’s just a discipline they have not accepted today. Along will come a great speaker one of these days, like a Reagan, or a Roosevelt, or a Kennedy, and they’ll do very well.

Toastmaster: Is that a skill they consciously focus on, or does it come naturally to someone like Barack Obama or Rudy Giuliani?

Matthews: I think they take it seriously. Jesse [Jackson] took it seriously. There are no great speakers by accident.

Toastmaster: What’s the most obvious speaking flaw you see in politicians?

Matthews: Probably delivering an applause line in a way that is grating. When they sort of slow down their delivery to let the applause pick up and then speed up during the applause, I can’t stand that. Hillary does it. It’s the same old thing. They create some sort of riff, they begin to repeat certain phrases, and they do it in a way that’s meant to cheer on the ringers in the audience to applaud and then [during the applause] they push their way through the applause. In other words, they encourage applause so they can talk through it. It really bugs me. Why are people in the audience just lemmings? I guess that’s what it is – a chant for their supporters.

Toastmaster: Between Hardball and The Chris Matthews Show, which do you enjoy more?

Matthews: They are what I do. I can’t say I enjoy one more than another. The Sunday show is more polished – we have a whole day of rehearsal. On a weekday show, you don’t have the time to really organize everything – you are really working on deadline. It’s never going to be quite as calm as doing half hour a week. You have to thrive on deadlines, Monday through Friday.

Also, [the shows] are different. During the week I have to challenge people. The Sunday show has a different tone from the weekend show. It has a different audience. It has a different time of the week, a tranquil time. It’s public affairs, news, entertainment – and it’s all connected. You can’t just read out news.

Toastmaster: You have said Winston Churchill would be your favorite guest on Hardball. Aside from “being the greatest man of the 20th Century,” as you put it, what would make him a good interview? No doubt, he would have several “talking points” you’d have to overcome…

Matthews: As the greatest man of the 20th Century, he was funny, he was brilliant, he had wonderful things to say and he was spontaneous. He spoke out. He probably would have some witticism ready in his quiver that he would use at the right moment. He didn’t do it spontaneously; he had them ready to serve up.

Toastmaster: You mention guests should bring “facts, spontaneity, honesty, feistiness and laughter.” Name some recent favorite guests who have brought that.

Matthews: [Newsweek columnist] Howard Fineman, [NBC correspondent] Norah O’Donnell, and certainly [author and commentator] Andrew Sullivan on the weekend. Dan Rather has been great, Kathy Kay from the BBC, Kathleen Parker – a syndicated columnist. I have these people on a lot, because they are really good. [Debbie Wasserman] Schultz, a congresswoman from Florida, is very good. [Congressman] Barney Frank is always a great guest. He’s smart as a whip.

Toastmaster: What do you consider your greatest strength as a speaker and communicator?

Matthews: Enthusiasm. I’m more enthusiastic than just about anybody. Also, my knowledge of the field of politics.

Toastmaster: If you could improve one aspect of your speaking style, what would that be?

Matthews: Great question. Organization – I think it would be helpful. I keep working on that…. But if I were any more organized, I’d be less spontaneous, so I think I’ll work on the combination of organization and spontaneity.

Toastmaster: What do you consider the single most important element of a successful speech?

Matthews: Absolute enthusiasm. Enjoying being there. The enjoyment of the moment. Also, humor. You can give the best speech in the world, but if it wasn’t funny, no one will remember it.

Toastmaster: Name some candidates who could use some more humor.

Matthews: Oh God. All of them!

Toastmaster: Is there any contemporary person you admire as a speaker? Why?

Matthews: I guess I’ve always admired [Tony] Blair – even though I disagreed with him, I liked him. I liked how he’d come to American press conferences at the White House and explain, sort of interpret Bush for us. It’s almost as if he were saying, “Here’s the English version.” He’d speak, and then Bush’d speak, and you’d wonder, are these guys speaking the same language? He’s so articulate and charming. And funny! It makes you feel good when you listen to Tony Blair. Archbishop Tutu, of South Africa, is also great – very eloquent and funny.

Toastmaster: Tell us about your new book, Life is a Campaign.

Matthews: It’s my best book yet. I spent years writing it. The subtitle is “What Politics Has Taught Me About Friendship, Rivalry, Reputation and Success.”

Toastmaster: Thank you for taking the time to talk to us.

Matthews: Thank you. Toastmasters changed my life. They really did. Put me on the stage. I don’t know what I would have done without that positive boost. And I really appreciate the call, to make me think about this again.” 

Suzanne Frey is the editor of the Toastmaster magazine. 

Chris Matthews’ Six-Step Speech System

Excerpted from the chapter titled, “Speak Up!” in his new book, Life’s a Campaign:

  • The icebreaker: First, offer a quip about the occasion. This is to relax the crowd and stamp the moment with your voice and personality. It can be hokey – “At least you can’t blame me for this weather” – or it can be an all-occasion greeting: “As King Henry VIII said to each of his seven wives, ‘I won’t keep you long.’” The goal is to simply let the audience know you’re there for them.
  • The tease: Next, give a provocative glimpse of what your speech will be about. This is important...Your goal is to rivet the audience’s attention to what you’re about to pull off. “What I am about to tell you will shock you” isn’t bad.
  • Anecdote time! Be prepared with a few appealing stories about the specific place, person or occasion that has brought you there. The idea is to further connect with your listeners. Consider this your final warm-up before takeoff. Try to find the anecdotes that will spotlight a few individuals in the crowd sitting in front of you. It instantly converts an audience into a community.
  • Download: Okay, tell them what you’ve traveled there to say. Just hit it – point by point.
  • Relief!: Time to let them know the heaviest part of the speech is behind them. Just tell some light-hearted story that brings your message home.
  • Send-off: Go for high octane! You want to leave your audience with a “wow.” Think of the reason you came to speak, then belt it for all to hear. If nothing else, it will alert everyone that you’re done and it’s time to clap.