Hall of Fame Tips for Presidential Candidates

From a Wall Street Journal story by Merrie Spaeth headlined “Hall of Fame Tips for Presidential Candidates”:

When the National Football League inducted a new class of Hall of Famers on Aug. 5, one thing was conspicuously missing: bad speeches. For years the ceremony had been known for them. Winners droned on with a laundry list of thank-yous, reminiscing with obscure anecdotes and humorless jokes. This year, speeches were short, scripted and sincere. Inductee Joe Thomas, a former Cleveland Browns offensive tackle, was quoted as saying: “Anyone who doesn’t use a speech coach in this situation is an idiot.” From his lips to the ears of senior executives, politicians and maybe even presidential candidates.

Many 2024 hopefuls are violating President Reagan’s 11th Commandment. It wasn’t “Don’t speak ill of other Republicans” but rather “Thou shall not bore other people.” While Donald Trump continues to excite with news-cycle busting indictments and quips, the rest of the field would do well to follow a different game plan. With the first GOP primary debate two weeks away, now is a good time to review some of the most common mistakes executives make and how to improve.

First, speeches should be governed by the time available, not the material to be covered or the information to be transmitted. This is the spoken manifestation of the oft-quoted Peter Principle about people rising to their level of incompetence. Presentations expand to or just beyond the time scheduled. Should they be scripted? Yes and no. They should be rehearsed. I frequently hear, “I’m too busy,” or “I already know it.” To that, I remind clients that my old boss—Ronald Reagan—rehearsed. If he could find time . . .

Good staff support helps speakers rehearse efficiently: testing out the beginning, the main headlines, any tricky or hard-to-absorb chart, any props and the end. Even 10 minutes of verbalizing these sections pays off.

Oh, and speaking of beginnings, then-Vice President George H.W. Bush would frequently start with, “Before I begin.” To that I would say: “Sir, you just began.”

Effective speeches include lots of interaction. Our company recommends at least two choreographed bits with the audience. The beginning is a traditional place. A good example is Facebook’s Sheryl Sandberg beginning a talk by asking any man who had ever been described as too aggressive to raise his hand. After a few lone ones went up, she then asked the same of the women in the room. Nearly every female hand rose. Ms. Sandberg had made her point before even getting to the body of the speech.

Emotion is tricky because it can look staged. Last week retired Dallas Cowboys linebacker DeMarcus Ware went considerably over his allotted time to talk about faith and family. Mr. Ware, sometimes dubbed “Superman,” allowed his emotions to pour out to talk about forgiveness. The presentation was appropriate only for the occasion—but executives today could at least include more empathy. Our monthly report of good and bad examples of communication has routinely included C-suiters announcing layoffs with a notable lack of warmth. Recent highlights include MillerKnoll CEO Andi Owen telling employees that they should get out of their “pity city,” and Disney CEO Bob Iger telling striking writers and actors that they were being “not realistic” while standing in front of an idyllic Idaho backdrop.

As mentioned, props are one of the best ways to enliven a speech and reinforce a point. Reagan’s favorite were letters. He’d pull one from a breast pocket and read it. Stories are great—crisp and relatable—as is self-deprecating humor. In 2021, former Las Vegas Raiders coach Tom Flores commented that he’d be brief because he was 84 and needed to go to bed by 9 o’clock.

What to tell the increasingly frustrated and desperate candidates for presidents? Again, while Mr. Trump sucks the attention and air out of the race, it’s probably best to listen to a very successful previous inhabitant of the White House, Franklin D. Roosevelt, who said, “Be sincere, be brief, be seated.” My father used to say, “It’s better to be lucky than smart. The trick is knowing the difference.” No one is going to be elected for being smart. Focus on how you’ll improve the lives of Americans, and hope to be lucky.

Merrie Spaeth, a Dallas communications consultant, was President Reagan’s director of media relations, 1983-85.

Speak Your Mind