Presidential Campaign

The art of the great political speech

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As the political conventions grow near, we will all be looking to hear a great speech. But what is a great speech in the modern era?

Speechwriting and speech-giving are forms of art in much the same way that cooking is art. Speeches take preparation and patience in the equivalent of a well-outfitted kitchen, and they require presentation akin to the finest restaurant. Great speeches leave enjoyment and fulfillment, something that lasts beyond the meal itself.

{mosads}Speechwriting and speech-giving lie in the craft of storytelling. Every story has a beginning, a middle and an end. A great speech is a story and contains stories within the body of the speech, delivered with the art of a narrator — someone you might enjoy listening to read an audiobook. Will that be the case this summer? Will any speech be memorable?

The problem with speeches in the modern era is the clutter of the information age. In today’s e-everything world of online content, tweets, blogs, posts and hashtags, it is getting harder to identify extraordinary speeches — ones that stand out from the pack. Like fast food, a quick speech rarely reflects the hard work of a trained chef who has diligently shopped, cooked, stirred the pot, timed everything perfectly and stood by to watch the meal unfold.

Brevity can be good or bad depending on how a speech is delivered. The first commandment in speechmaking and delivery is not to lose your reader or listener along the way. Much is made of Clint Eastwood giving a speech to a chair at the 2012 Republican convention. His real mistake was not the prop itself, but that he wandered off topic — a classic pitfall for speechwriters. Speeches that take long detours and veer off course never lead you anywhere. (They should be back to the beginning).

What politicians should remember is that great speeches have great lines. Think about the great speeches of our time, such as President Kennedy’s inaugural address: “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.” Or Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have A Dream Speech,” because it was breathtaking, with so many memorable phrases. How many times do we watch President Ronald Reagan stand at the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin, telling Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev to “tear down this wall”? Most of us can’t remember what else he said in that speech, but he had a great line.

Speeches do not have to be long, even though politicians are often long-winded. We love President Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, which was only about 265 words and took three minutes to deliver. At President Bill Clinton’s inauguration, Maya Angelou read a short poem, “On the Pulse of Morning.”

So what does it take to write and deliver a wonderful speech?

Preparation: Preparation comes in the form of research. The positive attribute of the internet is the access to an endless source of materials about a topic. In a web environment, there are really no excuses for a speech that repeats existing themes. The onus is on the speechwriter to find the new edge or current fact that brings the speech alive in relevance. In a 24/7 news environment, timeliness matters.

Passion: Emotion is key to a successful speech. Even if the person giving the speech did not write it, good delivery can drive a speech to a high point of memorability. Texas Rep. Barbara Jordan was passionate on the first night of the Democratic convention in July 1976. We don’t quote her often, but we remember the applause.

Positioning: A speech means preparing the audience in the way the consumers of a good meal are prepped to enjoy it. They’ve read the menu. They’ve heard about the food. They may even have tasted a meal prepared by the same chef. And they come hungry. With a speech, the positioning comes from the advanced promotion, the introduction, the physical conditions of the room and the hype around the speech. Just as we set the table for a meal, we can set the table for a speech. Both conventions will do their best to stir the pot.

In the end, a great speech is something to behold and remember.

Let’s look forward to a summer of fine dining and wonderful speeches.

Sonenshine lectures on communications at George Washington University and is an avid speechwriter.

Tags 2016 Democratic convention 2016 presidential campaign 2016 Republican convention Bill Clinton speech Speechwriter

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