By Kris Kitto - 04/20/10 10:28 PM EDT
Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) doesn’t mind making fun of himself in front of crowds. He even relishes it.
Self-deprecation is one of his public-speaking tricks, and it seems to work. At last month’s Gridiron Dinner, Hatch won overwhelmingly positive reviews for a speech in which he called himself a sex symbol on par with California GOP Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and applauded the organization for cutting back on its booze expenses by inviting a non-drinking Mormon to headline this year’s event.
It may have been a special speech for a special occasion, but, in truth, it was just another day in the life of a member of Congress. Lawmakers are called on daily — and usually several times a day — to give speeches at special events, say a few words in front of constituents or make a statement on their chamber’s floor. When he’s in Utah, Hatch said, he gives speeches “all the time.” And Rep. Marcy Kaptur (D-Ohio) estimated that, in any given month, she delivers 50 — “minimum.”
But that doesn’t mean that public speaking does — or should — come easy to members of Congress. Several lawmakers and communications experts say that public speaking is a vital aspect of a politician’s job that demands constant attention — but that, given the minute-by-minute schedules they keep, they rarely have time to prepare enough.
“If you’re not a good public speaker, and you can’t get your message across, you’re in trouble,” said Sen. Pat Roberts (R-Kan.). Roberts joined Toastmasters International, the organization that helps people become better public speakers, while in the Marine Corps after someone told him he had a flair for public speaking — and that he could probably get even better.
“It’s a continuing learning process,” he said. “You fall into bad speaking habits easily.”
Roberts said he likes to write his own remarks and, like Hatch, often relies on “levity and humor” to grab his audience. He’ll write a speech and then “let it cook” for a day or two, but he admits that his schedule doesn’t usually allow him to do that with every speech.
Roberts also tries to be selective about his speaking engagements.
“People tend to stop listening” if you speak a lot, he said.
Christine Clapp, the president of communications firm Spoken with Authority and a member of the Senate’s Toastmasters International chapter, wishes more members of Congress would be as judicious.
“Sometimes I feel like there’s a push for [members of Congress] … to say yes to everything, and I understand that inclination,” said Clapp, who also worked in communications capacities for Rep. Jay Inslee (D-Wash.) and Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.). “But I really think that, in terms of having effective speeches that are memorable, members should narrow it down to one or two per week rather than five per week.”
Kaptur tries to take that approach.
“I try not to wear out my welcome,” she said, even though she does love to speak, she added. Kaptur remembered getting graded down on her elementary school report cards for talking too much in class. And no one in her family liked to talk more than her.
Kaptur said she likes to borrow lines of poetry to capture her audience. She’ll often practice on her own before big speeches; she times herself, she said, to make sure she’s not running on too long.
Hatch said the public speaking he did as a trial attorney and before his church provided him a solid base when he started accepting speaking engagements as a senator. For his Gridiron Dinner speech, he practiced about five times before delivering it to the exclusive group of journalists, politicians, government officials and Washington insiders.
He echoed his colleagues in saying he tries to keep his number of speaking engagements manageable.
“I don’t like to speak unless I know what I’m talking about,” he said. “But when I do speak, I want it to be meaningful and impactful.”
Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.), who is often cited for his superlative oratorical skills, said he started practicing his public speaking very early, when he thought he wanted to be a minister.
“As a young child, I would gather all the chickens in the chicken yard and my brothers, sisters and cousins, and they would make up the congregation,” he said.
He said the key to good public speaking is to show passion.
“In order to convince people, in order to move people, you have to believe in what you’re saying,” he said.
By many standards, his strategy has worked. Lewis remembered that when he first joined the Georgia congressional delegation, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R) told him he thought Lewis was the House’s best public speaker.
“I just go for it,” Lewis said.
Public speaking: some tips from the experts
Take it from the experts: Members of Congress aren’t as good at public speaking as they could be.
“I’ll just cut to the chase: One of the things that never stopped surprising me is how many elected officials are really bad public speakers,” said Aileen Pincus, president of the Pincus Group communications firm and a former communications director for Sen. Kent Conrad (D-N.D.).
Christine Clapp, the president of communications firm Spoken with Authority, agrees.
“Many of them assume that because they are members of Congress and they’ve been elected by their constituents, they’re necessarily good speakers,” said Clapp, who also worked for Rep. Jay Inslee (D-Wash.) and Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.). “You can’t rest on your laurels.”
Both Pincus and Clapp said one of the lawmakers’ biggest public-speaking problems is that they don’t dedicate enough time to it. But for those who do — or want to — they offered several suggestions:
• Don’t read the text of your speech. Audiences are paying attention to a speaker’s body language, sincerity and tone, “so it’s a missed opportunity if you’re looking down and reading your words,” Pincus said.
•Go toward what you’re good at. “I definitely think that every speaker has their own strengths,” Clapp said. For instance, Clapp said, Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) is a good storyteller, and Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.) has a sharp wit.
•Solicit feedback. Communications staffers should seek out training in evaluating public speaking and be frank with their bosses — all in the name of improvement. “People just don’t have training on how to give an evaluation that’s not a whitewash,” Clapp said. She said her involvement in Toastmasters International helped her learn how to evaluate speeches.
And finally, both Pincus and Clapp stressed that public speakers need to practice in order to get better. Pincus pointed out that former Presidents Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton, two politicians people often point to as naturally gifted public speakers, both worked hard at perfecting their public personas.
So it behooves members of Congress to work on their public speaking, she said, because the impressions they make can have huge effects on the longevity and success of their careers.
“I think public speaking is a learned skill,” Pincus said. “I don’t think you’re born with it.”
Good public speakers: Who are they?
Sen. Robert Byrd (D-W.Va.) most often came to mind when The Hill asked communications experts and members of Congress which lawmakers they consider to be effective public speakers.
Below is a list of the people surveyed and whom they cited as skillful public speakers.
Sen. Pat Roberts (R-Kan.):
• Sens. Mike Johanns (R-Neb.), Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), John Thune (R-S.D.), Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) and Byrd.
•Sen. Kent Conrad (D-N.D.) — “For the charts, of course,” spokeswoman Sarah Little wrote in an e-mail.
•Former Sen. Ernest Hollings (D-S.C.)
• The late Sen. Paul Wellstone (D-Minn.)
• The late Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.). “Ted Kennedy was a classic example,” Roberts said.
Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah):
• McConnell “is very selective in his choice of words. He has a very wry sense of humor.”
• Alexander has “a professorial approach.”
• Sen. Scott Brown (R-Mass.) “can talk to the common man.”
• Sen. John Barrasso (R-Wyo.) is “a very, very intelligent guy.”
• Sen. Bob Bennett (R-Utah) is “more professorial.”
• Sen. Chris Dodd (D-Conn.) is “very fluent and [has] a great sense of humor.”
• Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) is “sincere.”
• Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.) — “She has that little set of eyes, and you can just tell when she’s about to let loose.”
• Kennedy — “He had that Irish charm.”
Rep. Marcy Kaptur (D-Ohio):
•Rep. Robert Andrews (D-N.J.)
•Byrd — “He could captivate me with his words.”
•Rep. Gene Taylor (D-Miss.) — “He does not say a lot, but he’s a gifted speaker.”
•Rep. Bill Pascrell (D-N.J.) “can send a message.”
•Reps. Mike Doyle (D-Pa.), Jesse Jackson Jr. (D-Ill.), James Clyburn (D-S.C.), Robert “Bobby” Scott (D-Va.), Lloyd Doggett (D-Texas) and Linda Sanchez (D-Calif.).
Christine Clapp, president of Spoken with Authority and former congressional communications director:
•Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.) — “I think that John Lewis has one of the most beautiful voices that you can find.”
•Byrd — “He’s one of the members who has so much passion when he gets up there and speaks.”
•Hatch — “I think that his songwriting and singing come to bear in his public speaking in an interesting way.”
•House Minority Leader John Boehner
(R-Ohio) — “I think he has a really great voice, and kind of a soothing voice.”
Aileen Pincus, president of the Pincus Group and former congressional communications director:
•Byrd — “I enjoyed several moments of Robert Byrd in his heyday, when he’d get on something.”