Can We Talk? U.S. Election 2008: What to Look for in a Candidate's Speech

Can We Talk? U.S. Election 2008: What to Look for in a Candidate's Speech

Less show biz, more authenticity and relevant standards are needed.

By Bob Katz

I recently watched a Hollywood movie that culminates in a gripping speech. The movie was The Contender, about the risky selection of a woman U.S. vice president – ring a bell? – that reaches a climax when the president delivers a passionate address before a joint session of Congress.

Jeff Bridges, playing the commander in chief, was all you could want in a speaker – graceful, persuasive, artfully attuned to the power of the moment. He was also, and this brings me to my point, a Hollywood actor. When it comes to oratorical glory, Hollywood cannot be beat.

With the American presidential election season now hitting the home stretch, we will be treated (I use the term cautiously) to a final barrage of speeches by the two presidential nominees and their picks for vice president. The importance of what they say is indisputable. But the standards we apply to their presentations cannot and should not be Hollywood standards. After all, “we-the-people” have a different agenda and, one would hope, far different needs than “we-the-viewing-audience.”

So what exactly are the qualities we seek from a candidate’s speech, and what do we hope to find?

I offer here some suggested criteria based on what we heard in the the recent Democratic and Republican National Convention speeches by the nominees: 

Do the thematic and narrative elements flow from the candidate’s own personal experience and worldview? Is the speech rooted in the particular values and life experiences of the speaker? Would the speech be impossible for another candidate to deliver?

• Does the speaker convince us that he or she is not on auto-pilot? It’s pretty hard to sound engaged when cruising through obligatory chunks of text transplanted from a shopworn stump speech. Is there a flicker of life behind the teleprompter? Is there any innovation, embellishment, improvisation?

• Does the speaker risk going deep? Deep in what way? Deeper than safe. Deeper than predictable. Deeper than stock resumé and biographical detail. Deeper than rehash. How to discern this? The old-fashioned way, by trusting our intuition about the way humans communicate.

• Did the speaker personally author at least some of the speech? Of course professional speechwriters will be employed. But when stirring words are spoken, it behooves us to know if our future leaders wrote them or simply recited them. Savvy teachers develop methods and instincts for detecting inauthenticity. We could do the same.

With these criteria in mind, I offer the following snapshot evaluations of this year’s candidates’ recent convention speeches:

Joe Biden:
Biden may well have authored key portions of this speech, but it’s pretty hard to count that as praise. Rubber chicken circuit fare replete with stale quips (acknowledging his wife as “the only one who leaves me breathless and speechless”) left the impression of a man who possibly cannot tell the difference between the sort of campaign trail speech he’s given countless times and one that resonates in distinctive ways.

Most tellingly, when talking about himself, Biden failed to soar. The only time he managed to display anything approaching conviction was when relating his mother’s wise counsel to go back outside and bloody the noses of neighborhood kids who’d taunted him. In the hands of a capable storyteller, this might – might – have proved an amusing little fable. Why, of all his possible childhood memories, Biden chose to recall this particular one at this time is anyone’s guess.

Sarah Palin:
The cadences seemed a natural fit for Palin’s folksy and high-spirited manner, and it might be possible to imagine this as a speech she helped author. Except it was difficult to ignore the likelihood that this speech was originally scripted for Mitt Romney or another of the leading contenders for vice president.

References to her small-town background had the potential to captivate and reveal, yet her presentation was cursory and utilitarian. Her career as Mayor of Wasilla seemed the perfect opportunity for her to talk about who she is and why she cares and what her rapid ascent means to her and should mean to us. But this was never fleshed out. Instead, we were treated to a dose of talk radio sarcasm and her enthusiastic rendition – shades of the lapsed sports reporter? – of McCain’s plight as a POW. If she were auditioning for a community theater production, Palin just might land a role but it wouldn’t be the lead. 

The patchwork structure of this speech had the whiff of a text assembled by committee that’s infatuated with the cut-and-paste feature of its word processing program. McCain brought little verve to this extensive checklist of bullet points. He appeared to have been thrown off his rhythm by the noisy intrusions of his enthusiastic supporters. “I know these are tough times for many of you,” he asserted promisingly, only to be instantly overwhelmed by the loud, insistent chant, “USA, USA, USA.”

Where McCain spoke most powerfully and had everyone’s fullest attention was in recounting his brutal imprisonment in Vietnam. He described this experience simply and directly. This was a story no other candidate can tell (in the first person) and it was the emotional centerpiece. He has mastered the tricky art of relating the rigors he endured without seeming to boast. And the lesson that he drew from this horror resounded especially well in words: “I wasn’t my own man anymore; I was my country’s.”

Despite significant evidence that Obama is a capable writer (exhibit A: his first book), this speech lacked vivid examples of uniquely personal insights. When he did make reference to himself (“Michelle and I are only here tonight because we were given an education”), it was mostly to punctuate a policy point. Allusions to intriguing aspects of his personal story (“I realize I am not the likeliest candidate for this office”), yielded little insight.

That said, Obama managed to invest the obligatory policy and issue portion of his speech with passion and a sense of purpose. He managed a masterful maneuver in referencing the 45th anniversary of the acclaimed “I Have a Dream” speech, channeling the oratorical force of Martin Luther King without overtly mentioning him by name. In my view, Obama was able, in rising to his conclusion, to reach a kind of musical crescendo that eluded the other candidates.

Beyond the slick TV ads and shifting policy statements, the medium through which our would-be leaders are compelled to communicate is the spoken word. Yet it’s folly to continue to apply Hollywood (or even Toastmasters) standards to candidates’ speeches when what voters truly need, what citizens need, is to understand these politicians better, to know them better. Acting can’t tell us that, nor can outsourced scripts or paying attention simply to performance.

Speeches can, however, provide an invaluable window into the character and capabilities of these men and women who would lead us. Unfortunately, that’s not going to happen unless the voting public – you know who you are! - insists on more relevant standards, less show biz and more authenticity, and makes a point of holding politicians to them.

Editor’s Note: The views expressed in this article are the author’s and are not endorsed by Toastmasters International. 

Bob Katz is an author and consultant working on a book about public speaking in America. His most recent book is Elaine’s Circle: A Teacher, A Student, A Classroom, and One Unforgettable Year. Reach him at