Manner of Speaking: Campaign Miscommunication

Manner of Speaking: Campaign Miscommunication

Even the most experienced speakers
suffer from foot-in-mouth disease.

By Paul Sterman

There are certain things you always see in a presidential election: big-money fund- raisers, TV attack ads, campaign promises….and an inevitable array of verbal blunders.

The American campaign season of 2008 has been no different. It’s not just the presidential candidates who have made their share of speaking slip-ups. Their political posses (advisors, aides, spokespersons, spouses!) have also committed gaffes galore. And with so much at stake, these mistakes have been costly: Embarrasing apologies have been issued; aides have been fired; reputations have been damaged.

The ultimate price of this verbal fumbling could be determined when Americans go to the polls on Nov. 4.

For anyone who cares about communication, there are lessons to be learned in all this, say experts in the public speaking arena – lessons that can be translated to our own lives and careers. They include:

  • It sounds simple, but be sure to think before you speak.
  • Preparation and practice are always vital to good communication.
  • Take care of yourself physically – rest and good health can play a key role in your ability to articulate effectively.

The verbal pratfalls of political leaders reveal the hazards of speaking extemporaneously, in particular.

A small sampling of the year’s biggest blunders: 

• As Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton vied fiercely for the Democratic nomination, one of Obama’s top advisers referred to Clinton as a “monster” in a newspaper article. After making the strikingly harsh comment, Samantha Power – a Harvard professor – was forced to resign from the campaign.

• During a week of epic financial upheaval on Wall Street – one that would end with President Bush proposing a $700 billion plan to bail out U.S. financial institutions – John McCain made this statement in a speech: “The fundamentals of our economy are strong.”

• Obama, speaking at a private fundraiser in San Francisco, uttered his now-notorious comments about the economic struggles of small-town Americans: “It’s not surprising, then, [that] they get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren’t like them.” The comments – at best a poor choice of words and at worst a condescending categorization of a whole group of people – sparked a media firestorm, dubbed “Bittergate.”

• Not to be outdone, the co-chairman of John McCain’s campaign managed to make his own insulting remarks about America’s economic woes. Amid skyrocketing gas prices and plummeting home sales, former Texas Senator Phil Gramm said in a newspaper interview that the U.S. has become “a nation of whiners.” Gramm insisted that the constant complaining from Americans led the country into a “mental recession.” Days later, he resigned from the campaign.

When public figures make verbal pratfalls, we wonder, “What were they thinking?” Veteran Toastmasters say the basic principles underlining Table Topics – learning to compose yourself, organize your thoughts and think before you speak – benefit anyone wanting to get a message across effectively, be it politicians, business people, teachers or residents speaking out at community events and council meetings.

Norm Wigington is one who knows. The longtime Toastmaster in Houston, Texas, worked for many years as a Public Information Officer for the Texas Department of Transportation – a job that required him to be interviewed regularly by the local media about traffic and safety issues. Wigington says Table Topics at his hometown club consistently helped him improve his ability to speak impromptu and deliver clear, concise messages.

“I felt Table Topics was the best thing in Toastmasters,” he says. 

Prepare to Be Spontaneous
Marilynn Mobley, a media consultant and public relations executive in Atlanta, has worked with many high-profile clients through the years, including politicians. She says preparation is key to impromptu speaking – in other words, the more you work on it beforehand, the better you’ll seem on the spot.

When her clients are preparing for a situation where they’ll answer questions – from reporters during an interview or business colleagues during a presentation – Mobley coaches them to have certain “talking points” ready that they can repeatedly refer to when answering such questions.

This applies to any “subject matter expert,” she notes. When you have “prepared” answers – phrases and comments you’ve practiced in advance and you know the subject matter well – you are more in control when speaking extemporaneously.

“I advise my clients, ‘Always have an answer on the tip of your tongue,’” says Mobley, a senior vice president and strategic counsel at Edelman, an international public relations firm. “I tell them they have to understand their topic in a way that they can get their sound bites in when the occasion arises to use them.”

What if someone is caught off-guard when asked a question by an interviewer, or a colleague, or a board member?

Think before you speak, says Mobley. Take time before you answer. “I always tell my clients, ‘If you are given 10 seconds to give an answer, take two of them to pause and gather your thoughts,’” she says. “There is no rule that says you have to immediately answer a question.” 

Mistakes and Misstatements
The litany of verbal gaffes and goofs made by Obama and McCain – America’s Democratic and Republican nominees for President, respectively – has ranged from tripping over their tongues to misstating their facts. In one stump speech, Obama talked about traveling around the U.S. and said he’d now been “in 57 states.” Another time he claimed that Kansas tornadoes killed 10,000 people – when the actual death toll was 12.

For his part, McCain has mistakenly used the word “Czechoslovakia” – a former country that for the last 15 years has been divided into the Czech Republic and Slovakia. And earlier this year he said there were fewer troops in Iraq than before the U.S. started its surge policy – when, in fact, there were 20,000 more troops.

However, a little perspective is in order. Do all these errors mean the two candidates are poor communicators? On the contrary, both men have considerable strengths as speakers. (See Linda McGurk’s article on Obama and McCain on page 20 in this issue.) The truth is, anyone who runs for high political office makes so many speeches and talks to so many reporters and answers so many questions – all while subjected to intense scrutiny and microscopic media attention – that bungled comments are inevitable.

Moreover, the candidates’ every word and movement are captured by recording devices and Internet technology, such as YouTube. You’d have to be a super-hero to avoid making the kind of verbal flubs that are fodder for the media as well as political opponents.

Mobley, an Atlanta resident and a past president of the Georgia chapter of the National Speakers Association, also makes this point: The presidential candidates are spinning around so fast, going from city to city and speaking day after day, that they’re exhausted, making them more vulnerable to speaking errors.

“Physical condition does affect your mental condition,” she notes, “and that affects your ability to articulate in an effective manner.”

That’s a universal truth for any communicator – whether it’s a CEO trying to make a presentation on two hours’ sleep, or an actress readying for opening night after getting no shut-eye the evening before. If you can, get lots of rest before big challenges that require communicating.

Mobley offers another basic tip – and it’s one any Toastmaster knows well: “The more that people speak, the more comfortable they are with speaking extemporaneously.” 

Paul Sterman is an associate editor for the Toastmaster magazine and a resident of Orange, California. Reach him at