Friday, September 5, 2008

Straight from the Heart -- John McCain's Acceptance Speech

As usual, the pundits from various points on the political spectrum are weighing in on Senator John McCain's acceptance speech last night. Let me give you my point of view as a communicator, a speechwriter, an emotional Italian-American who is ultimately unabashed about his patriotism, and an objective admirer of McCain. I found it to be a one of the most moving, heartfelt speeches that I ever heard from a politician.
Consider all that the Senator did in his speech to remain true to himself:
  1. He acknowledged an unpopular President who is a millstone around his neck, showing respect for the office of the Chief Executive without embracing the man himself.
  2. He spoke about our need to serve the country.
  3. He criticized his own party for their behavior while holding power over the last eight years. (There were times I wondered, "Are you actually addressing the party that chose you as their standard bearer?" It was an astonishing display of candor.)
  4. He spoke humbly about his own particular story as a prisoner of war, and not in a self-aggrandizing way. He ultimately turned his story to the service of others, those who supported him in the Hanoi Hilton. There have been times lately that I found his references to his captivity downright cloying and even dishonorable, as when he tried to rationalize how he didn't know how many homes he owned on the Tonight Show with Jay Leno. However, he redeemed himself to me last night.)
  5. He was comfortable with showing his own fragility as a human being, calling himself "an imperfect servant" of his country.
Was the speech effective? Apparently not to many, who said he muffed the opportunity to give specific examples of how he would work with the Democrats, or how many of his proposals were rehashed from Bush 2000. But for me, the self-deprecation and raw emotion that enveloped his vivid description of his capture and his captivity moved me. In a week of speeches that I found to be overblown, mean-spirited and divisive, it was a welcome change for me.

Thursday, September 4, 2008

How Did Gov. Palin Do as a Toastmaster?

I sat there as dispassionately as possible last night as Governor Sarah Palin addressed the Republican National Committee. I wondered how I might evaluate her if I were hearing her at a Toastmaster event (disregarding the fact that most of those prepared speeches are five to seven minutes in length). I'm reading a lot of feedback today, but, predictably, they fall along partisan lines. But the focus of this blog is communication, not politics. So here are my thoughts on her speech.

OBJECTIVES CLEAR?: There were several objectives that came out of this speech:
  1. Introduce herself to the public.
  2. Show support for John McCain for President.
  3. Address the criticisms of her background.
  4. Display her values.
ORGANIZATION: The organization of the speech was a bit haphazard, veering from one point to another. Part of that was the scatter shot nature of her objectives. That was a lot of territory to cover in one speech. Most other political speeches tend to be more focused. For example, on the previous night, former Sen. Fred Thompson could concentrate on the differences between McCain and Obama. He did not have to speak about himself at all. Palin's goals were more wide-ranging, so harder to embrace.
CONFIDENCE and DIRECTNESS: Superb. There was nary a stumble or evidence of lack of confidence in her delivery or eye contact. There was an aspect of her speech that made me feel she was speaking to me. She is a natural.
USE OF LANGUAGE: Satisfactory at best. Part of that is due to the fact that she was addressing an eager audience with low expectations. They really wanted her to come on strong. Still, compared to what we have heard from other speakers, there was no soaring language in this speech. Also there were no clever turns of phrases. When her words were memorable, it was due more to her sarcastic and attacking tone than the wordsmithing. (Compare to a very good phrase that Bill Clinton had in his speech to the Democrats, and I paraphrase: "People around the world at one time knew us better by the power of our example than from the example of our power.")
: Limited. After all, she was at a podium, and she was dependent on the TelePrompTer. But others also face that burden and handle it better than she did. For example, she did not use her hands to her advantage.
VOCAL VARIETY and TONE OF VOICE: I found her voice grating and nasal. Also, she had a quality that was a nightmare for many women, unfortunately -- when her voice rose, it became shrill. Still, she registered some differences in her voice between talking about her family, her husband, McCain and Obama.
AUDIENCE RESPONSE: Powerful, but come on! It was the most receptive audience she will ever face in her life!
OTHER FACTORS: Palin was not served well by the constant interruptions in which her family were introduced. It took the focus off of her. While the home-town crowd of the RNC may have eaten it up, it was tedious to those of us watching at home.
OBJECTIVES MET?: A strong performance in this area. She revealed herself as a viable candidate and looked strong up there. The audience in the room went crazy It was a most auspicious coming out party. However, it remains to be seen how the audience across TV Land bought her act.
WHAT DID THE EVALUATOR PARTICULARLY LIKE ABOUT THE SPEECH?: Her confidence. Her preparedness in a relatively short amount of time. The ability to use and deliver words that were obviously not her own.
Palin needs to make sure the act doesn't wear thin. Speaking powerhouse Patricia Fripp warns that the greatest enemy of a speaker is sameness. Last night's performance played well to her core audience, but she has many different people to win over. She runs the risk of appear one-dimensional is she doesn't start using more inspirational language.