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For many lawmakers, public speaking is a fact of life

Sen. Orrin HatchOrrin Grant HatchOvernight Finance: NAFTA defenders dig in | Tech pushes Treasury to fight EU on taxes | AT&T faces setback in merger trial | Dems make new case against Trump tax law | Trump fuels fight over gas tax What sort of senator will Mitt Romney be? Not a backbencher, even day one Lawmaker interest in NAFTA intensifies amid Trump moves MORE (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.

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“I have a tremendous tendency to poke fun at myself,” Hatch later told The Hill.

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 RobertsCharles (Pat) Patrick RobertsOvernight Finance: Lawmakers, Treasury look to close tax law loopholes | Trump says he backs gas tax hike | Markets rise despite higher inflation | Fannie Mae asks for .7B Senators working on fix to agriculture provision in GOP tax law Trump budget would slash crop insurance funds for farmers MORE (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 NelsonClarence (Bill) William NelsonGingrich says arming teachers only long-term solution to school shootings Florida students turn to activism in wake of shooting CNN invites Trump to town hall with parents, students of Florida high school MORE (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 MurrayPatricia (Patty) Lynn Murray30 million people will experience eating disorders — the CDC needs to help Mulvaney remarks on Trump budget plan spark confusion Overnight Finance: Mulvaney sparks confusion with budget remarks | Trump spars with lawmakers on tariffs | Treasury looks to kill 300 tax regs | Intel chief's warning on debt MORE (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 ClintonWilliam (Bill) Jefferson ClintonShould the Rob Porter outcome set the standard? Make the compromise: Ending chain migration is a small price to legalize Dreamers Assessing Trump's impeachment odds through a historic lens MORE, 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 JohannsMichael (Mike) Owen JohannsFarmers, tax incentives can ease the pain of a smaller farm bill Lobbying World To buy a Swiss company, ChemChina must pass through Washington MORE (R-Neb.), Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellLawmakers feel pressure on guns Bipartisan group of House lawmakers urge action on Export-Import Bank nominees Curbelo Dem rival lashes out over immigration failure MORE (R-Ky.), John ThuneJohn Randolph ThuneFlake to try to force vote on DACA stopgap plan Congress punts fight over Dreamers to March The 14 GOP senators who voted against Trump’s immigration framework MORE (R-S.D.), Lamar AlexanderAndrew (Lamar) Lamar AlexanderOvernight Health Care: Trump health chief backs CDC research on gun violence | GOP negotiators meet on ObamaCare market fix | Groups sue over cuts to teen pregnancy program GOP negotiators meet on ObamaCare market fix 30 million people will experience eating disorders — the CDC needs to help MORE (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 BarrassoJohn Anthony BarrassoThe 14 GOP senators who voted against Trump’s immigration framework Overnight Energy: Senate panel advances Trump pick for EPA No. 2 | Pruitt questions ‘assumptions’ on climate | Dems want Pruitt recused from climate rule review Senate panel advances Trump pick for No. 2 official at EPA MORE (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 CollinsSusan Margaret CollinsOvernight Tech: Judge blocks AT&T request for DOJ communications | Facebook VP apologizes for tweets about Mueller probe | Tech wants Treasury to fight EU tax proposal Overnight Regulation: Trump to take steps to ban bump stocks | Trump eases rules on insurance sold outside of ObamaCare | FCC to officially rescind net neutrality Thursday | Obama EPA chief: Reg rollback won't stand FCC to officially rescind net neutrality rules on Thursday MORE (R-Maine) is “sincere.”
• Sen. Barbara MikulskiBarbara Ann MikulskiDems ponder gender politics of 2020 nominee Robert Mueller's forgotten surveillance crime spree Clinton: White House slow-walking Russia sanctions MORE (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.)
•Hollings
•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 BoehnerJohn Andrew BoehnerRestoring fiscal sanity requires bipartisan courage GOP congressman slams primary rival for Ryan donations Speculation swirls about Kevin McCarthy’s future MORE
(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.”