Biden needs a new speech — a lobster could help
President Biden needs a new speech. More specifically, he needs a new speech opening. A speech that aims to change people’s minds needs a strong thematic image (i.e., Churchill’s “Iron Curtain descending”) or a great line (pick from among multiple quotations from Martin Luther King Jr.). These are hard to think of. A speechwriter’s next strategy is an opening that creates a visual image for the rest of the remarks. Biden needs a specific opening that reframes his philosophy — and he needs it quickly, for the sake of his administration and our country.
Biden’s polling numbers are dismal, and with energy from Russian a consideration as the war in Ukraine continues, the president may need to change course on his domestic energy policies — at least for the near term. But to do so, he’ll need a coherent description of why he’s changing course and will need to convey that he has a well-thought-out plan of action.
The late Swedish scientist Hans Rosling’s final TED talk is an example of a compelling set-up. His topic is economic and income inequality in a world described as “the West” and “the rest.” He puts two large IKEA boxes on a table, spaced about 18 inches apart, representing “the gap” between the two worlds. From one, he pulls a toy Volvo, signifying Swedes’ income level. Out of the other, he pulls rubber flip flops to illustrate what that family needed so they could have food for the day. Gesturing at the gap between the boxes, he says the descriptive words are out-of-date and, because of that, they are dangerous.
“The world has changed, and it’s overdue to upgrade that mindset and that taxonomy of the world and to understand it. And that’s what I’m going to talk about,” Rosling says. By now, he’s two minutes into the speech, there is a pile of boxes to be opened and we’re hooked. If he had begun by saying he wanted to update the taxonomy of the world economic situation, we would have tuned out.
The most obvious manifestation of the Biden administration’s recognition that the world has changed is that the president begged Middle Eastern oil-producing countries and the oil and gas industry to increase production so that America could reclaim energy independence or dominance. There are other issues where there are hints of change. Whether you think the Biden team is serious or just reacting to political realities, the speechwriters need to set up the president’s next speech to convey that the world indeed has changed, and that the president “gets it.”
I can make a contribution. I wrote this opening for a CEO who gave a “my way or the highway” speech to his sales force. They had experienced two years of complaints, litigation and lost revenue. This was their last chance. It was a tough message, and he needed to deliver it in a way that got people on board. When we began to discuss the speech, his idea was to boil a frog on stage. He’d heard that if you put a frog in boiling water, it will jump out, but if you put it in room-temperature water and slowly raise the temperature to a boil, the frog doesn’t sense the change and suffocates.
“You can’t boil a frog on stage,” I told him. “The animal rights people will kill us.” But it occurred to me that we could boil a lobster. Lobsters could give us the right framework (though Switzerland and New Zealand do ban the boiling of live lobsters, and even some scientists disagree with the commonly held belief that they cannot feel pain).
When America’s colonists arrived, lobsters here were so plentiful that they could be picked up on beaches; they were fed to pigs. Indentured servants had contract clauses specifying lobster couldn’t be fed to them more than twice a week. Now, lobsters are a high-end meal for special occasions and servants don’t have to worry about too much seafood in their diet. Lobsters are no longer animal feed, either. In the intervening 350 years, the lobster didn’t change — the environment changed.
In the speech, the CEO came up on the stage with a paper bag. On stage was a Pyrex pot with boiling water. He pulled out the lobster and began by asking, “Who likes lobster?” Lots of hands went up. Then he launched into the history I outlined above. When he got to the line about how the environment was what changed, he threw the lobster into the pot. There was an audible gasp from the audience members. He launched into his speech. At the end, he finished by saying he was confident they could accomplish their goals. Why? He pulled the now bright red lobster out of the pot with tongs, moved to the front of the stage and concluded, “We know the world has changed.” He added, “Let’s have lunch,” and got an enthusiastic ovation.
The lobster opening would work for Biden because he needs to convince the middle 60-plus percent of the electorate that it’s “boiling water time.” After the set-up, he could recite the facts about needed pipelines, liquified natural gas (LNG) plants on the Texas coast, rethinking the hostility towards investors in fossil fuels, and so on. He could also signal re-thinking on other issues with which he is clearly grappling — such as stemming the flow of migrants at the southern border. Hints of changes to come have been leaking out, and Biden needs to articulate them in a framework that will build public confidence, particularly among liberal voters, about why he is doing them.
Oh, and one more thing: After a thematic opener and a persuasive recitation of facts, you come to the section “in conclusion.” Biden needs a story about a successful project that got done at warp speed. Anybody know one?
Merrie Spaeth, a Dallas communications consultant, was President Reagan’s director of media relations. Follow her on Twitter @SpaethCom.
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