Political Speakers

Remembering John F. Kennedy – Speaking Lessons from a Heroic Orator

When asked to describe John F. Kennedy, many people mention the phrase “great speaker.” It’s true. Watch any of his speeches and you’ll see someone who looks natural and elegant in front of a crowd. He had a cunning wit and easy charm. He was articulate, intelligent, direct, and inspiring. Most of all, he looked comfortable.

But comfortable he was not. Over the last two weeks I have watched numerous documentaries about JFK’s life and realized once again that in addition to being a great speaker, he was also a very ill man, plagued with serious diseases from Crohn’s to Addison’s. As James Blight of The Daily Beast explained, “JFK—once believed to be the paragon of “vigah,” health, and vitality—was in reality one of the sickest, most physically compromised American presidents in U.S. history. He was given last rites by a priest at least four times, and possibly a fifth—the latter while he was president, in June 1961.” JFK’s various conditions were treated with steroids and other strong drugs that caused severe side effects and weakened his spine, resulting in chronic pain.

Now think about this: If JFK was in pain most of his life that would mean he was giving some of the best speeches of the 20th century while enduring extreme discomfort, debilitating illnesses, and numerous medication side effects. It’s challenging enough for most people to give a speech to a large crowd when they’re in perfect health and under ideal circumstances. Imagine having to give a critical speech when you are in extreme pain. Yes, it could be that he was carried along on pain killers, other drugs, and pure adrenaline, and that he may not have felt distressed while giving a speech. However, he certainly felt it after the adrenaline wore off and the “performance high” abated. Either way, it’s unimaginable.

Many of us have had the experience of having to give a presentation when we’ve not been at our best—either with a cold, a headache, or with some other physical or emotional challenge. And most of us can “rise to the occasion” in these stressful times and perform effectively. But these situations are infrequent. For JFK, on the other hand, coping with discomfort was a fact of everyday life. He not only rose to the occasion with every speech he gave, but he also set a new standard of leadership through his powerful and eloquent communication.

In a way, it’s a bit ironic. Here was a man who couldn’t even lift his own children due to his illnesses, yet he had the backbone to lead the American people through tumultuous times. Here was a man wracked with pain, yet when he stood in front of an audience of thousands he spoke with passion and certainty—as though he actually had the “vigah” he spoke of.

So, the next time you hear one of JFK’s speeches, listen with a new ear. Think not about just the content of his message; think about the content of his inner strength—of his ability to rise above his own pain so that he could uphold his duty as president and inspire others through his oratorical greatness.

Fortunately, most public speakers will never have to overcome such a challenge. However, if you’re ever in the situation when you have to present with a cold, a headache, or even a heartache, take a lesson from JFK. As he so eloquently said: “Do not pray for easy lives. Pray to be stronger men.”

Click here to view some historic speeches from the JFK library.

Clinton’s 48 Minutes of Magic Add to the Oratorical Feast at the Democratic National Convention

It has been an oratorical feast at the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte this week. Any aspiring or seasoned public speaker has a ringside seat to observe some of the best main stage political speakers in the world. As a speech coach, it has been delightful to witness such passionate oratory delivered via powerful performance techniques and heartfelt storytelling. Yesterday I wrote about Michelle Obama, Julian Castro, and Deval Patrick. If you missed it, you can read it here.

Last night, as I anxiously waited to hear former President Bill Clinton speak, I marveled at his “warm up act,” Elizabeth Warren.

Another great storyteller like those the night before, Elizabeth Warren began her speech by saying, “I grew up on the ragged edge of the middle class.” Within the first few minutes of her talk we learned a lot about her—she married at 19, went to college, had children, taught school and was “grateful down to my toes for every opportunity America gave me.”

Warren has a wonderful quirky style, soft and quiet at times, but more often quick paced and urgent. She asks a lot of pointed rhetorical questions, “Does anyone have a problem with that?” She uses repetition effectively, “No-one, no-one can stop us.” And she understands the importance of the applause pause. A highly convincing speaker, Warren tells us with everything she’s got not only what she believes is important, but what she wants us to believe. It was a joy to watch her work the crowd.

And then there was Bill…

After all these years of hearing Bill Clinton speak, I shouldn’t be amazed, but I was. Actually, I was blown away. How did he manage to give a long policy speech packed with complicated ideas and details that was also light, entertaining and fully digestible? Leave it to his folksy style to make sure we were clearly following every step of the way.

With his alluring invitations, “Now listen to this” or “Consider this” or “Now wait” he kept us on track.  He had an agenda, and I felt like we were on a long train moving from car to car, staying in each one just long enough to hear the facts, comparisons and contrasts before moving on as he methodically and forcefully built his case.

Clinton is undeniably the best public speaker we have today, and I wrote about him when he spoke at the 2008 DNC. Just as last time on this stage, he did everything right—from his conversational and engaging delivery, his irresistible smile and inviting eyes, and his graceful gestures and relaxed torso to his musical vocal cadence, pitch, inflection and pauses. He gave us the medicine—a meaty, informative and convincing message—with a spoonful of sugar.

I don’t know how Barack Obama will top this…but I’m sure he will. And I can’t wait!

Michelle Obama, Julian Castro, & Deval Patrick: A Slew of Great Speakers Kick Off the DNC

What fun to watch the speeches last night at the opening of the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte NC. I was delighted to see such passionate oratory delivered via powerful technique and heartfelt storytelling. The “story” has always been a strategic ally of political speech-making, and last night gave us many good examples of how it helps speakers reach right into every heart and mind to create connection. Michelle Obama’s speech was striking because of her ease and accessibility, as if this was just another of the tasks she did that day as wife, mother and first lady. She is a unique communicator—comfortable and personal—who elegantly used stories to connect to each of us. We heard the story of her early life, the story of her early life with her husband, the story of her early feelings about being the First Lady, and the story of her current life with her family.

In addition to talking about her life, she made simple statements about her husband’s accomplishments—nothing grand or grandiose. It felt like she was talking to us in the intimacy of our living room. And the section on why she loves her husband was to me the most touching and effective I’ve heard. She was truly connecting with people, not reading lines from the teleprompter. The speech was beautifully written and beautifully delivered by someone who, as people say, is “the real deal.”

Julian Castro told a great story as well. His was one of those “only in America” stories, complete with lingering images of his grandmother making the sign of the cross and blessing the young twin brothers as they left for school in the morning. In this story, every detail added to the impact. We saw his grandmother, the two young boys, and the daily morning ritual that happened many years ago.

I was also impressed with Castro’s ability to try a range of delivery techniques. You could clearly see the techniques at work. And although they didn’t always work for him, he gave it his all. I was impressed watching this budding political speech-maker. As he gains experience on the main stage he will certainly be successful. Even though he hasn’t perfected every stage technique, he has mastered one—the story.

Governor Deval Patrick was equally profound. If you didn’t have a chance to see his speech, I recommend you watch it now. Don’t wait! I had never seen Patrick, Governor of Massachusetts, although I have heard that he is an excellent speaker. Along with the rest of America, I was riveted. Charismatic in the style of the traditional Southern Baptist Preacher, he brought it on—it was the WOW factor in abundance.

His resounding voice and intonation, coupled with his use of the dramatic pause, made for a forceful and motivating speech. He used the repeated phrase “we believe” as he laid out the democratic platform. But like any great political speech, it wasn’t just his delivery. His message combined substance and structure with bursts of gut-felt sticky phrases, such as “Turn to each other, not on each other” and “It’s time for Democrats to grow a backbone and stand up for what we believe in.” And he gave direction, as in, “Don’t allow Obama to be bullied out of office.”

He, too, told a difficult to hear story about the Orchard Gardens School and their struggle to survive in the midst of extreme poverty and limited resources.

There were many more speeches yesterday from key players and unknown citizens, but these three powerful speakers were in the prime time spotlight. Tonight we will hear from the master speech-maker: Former President Bill Clinton. I can’t imagine how he will top last night’s oratorical feast—but I’m sure he will.

Obama “On Fire” in Iowa

If you’re looking for an example of someone who knows how to create a fire in the belly of an audience, look no further than President Obama’s speech last Friday in Urbandale, Iowa. There, Obama launched The Road to Charlotte Tour with a rousing rebuttal to the GOP convention platform last week.

There are numerous best practices to note in this speech, but the one I want to emphasize is the use of his overall energy. Obama is the epitome of a public speaker who knows how to “create performance combustion.” This is a term I use often to describe how a speaker can bring an audience to life.

When I talk about creating performance combustion, I use the metaphor of creating fire. As any good scout knows, to create fire, you need the three elements of heat, fuel, and oxygen. I like to think that these three elements correspond to the use of our body, our voice, and words. And just as fire requires that each of these elements be present to keep the fire glowing, the same can be said about the speaker’s use of physical energy, vocal energy, and verbal energy. The combination of our physical, vocal, and verbal skills creates something bigger than any one element can provide.

To be able to create a fire in the belly of our audience, we have to have that fire already burning hot in our own belly. That’s what Obama showed us on Friday. Let’s take a look at how he used each “element” of fire to intensify our experience—to rouse and excite the crowd.

  • Physical Presence: When speaking, Obama was erect, leaned slightly forward, and made direct eye contact. He used facial expressions that varied from serious and intense to warm, smiling and uplifting. He used his gestures, hands and arms modestly.
  • Vocal Resonance: Obama used volume that came in waves, sometimes soft and conversational and other times driving and forceful. . He used clear enunciation, a range of pitch from high to low, and plenty of well-placed strategic pauses. But the most commanding vocal skill was his use of inflection. He powered out those last few sentences loud and strong, holding nothing back, in full force and fury. His voice quickened our pulse and pulled us in.
  • Distinctive language: He used concise sentences. For example, when commenting about the GOP convention, he said, “They talked a lot about me. They talked a lot about them. But they didn’t say a lot about you.” He made use of the world “you” (the most powerful word in the English language) often. He gave clear and simple directions, as in, “Don’t boo. Vote.” Go to www.gottaregister.com or www.gottavote.com.

People always ask me what it takes to be a good public speaker. The answer is simple: You have to be willing and able to create performance combustion—especially with your voice.

So, in addition to recommending TED talks and C-Span when looking for examples of good and bad public speaking, today I recommend Obama’s speech in Urbandale. Politics aside, you will see speech skills and techniques in abundance and clearly available for analysis. I watch a lot of speeches. Some make me think, some make me sleep, but few make me feel. This one was invigorating. Obama, the candidate, has returned, creating fire once again.

I’ll be blogging about many of the speeches at the DNC this week and hope you will add your candid thoughts and comments to my posts. Stay tuned.

Wednesday for Women: Public Speaking Lessons from Meryl Streep

Meryl Streep just won an Oscar for her portrayal of Margaret Thatcher in the movie The Iron Lady, and in my view she deserves an equally prestigious award for her introduction of Hillary Rodham Clinton at the Women in the World Summit 2012 at Lincoln Center in New York City. I’m a big fan of Meryl Streep and an even bigger supporter of our Secretary of State. The combination of these two women on stage gave us a powerful example of how different styles and backgrounds can yield equally successful presentations.

Doing a formal introductory speech, like what Meryl did, can be challenging. So let’s look at three areas of Meryl’s speech and have a seasoned actor show us how it’s done:

  • Image: With her bright red jacket and those fabulous black reading glasses, Meryl’s image had impact. Best of all, she didn’t just look great; she used her outfit as a prop, referring to the “put downs” of Hillary’s pantsuits over the years. She twirled around and showed us her jacket, poking fun of those who poked fun at Hillary.
  • Content: Meryl’s captivating message is rich with what we call “touch points” or “rhetorical devices.” These are the stories, examples, metaphors, facts, and humor that make up the core content of a speech, and that make it interesting and inspiring. Meryl’s speech was funny and moving because it was packed with plenty of twists and surprises, contained humorous, colorful stories, and teemed with respect and sentiment all while making playful jokes about Hillary.

For example, Meryl began by comparing herself and her early life to Hillary, which she says that every living American woman her age has done. She goes on to compare the two women’s experiences at Yale, where their similar paths diverged. “While I was a cheerleader, she was the president of the student government,” says Meryl. “Where I was the lead in all three musicals, people who know her tell me she should never be encouraged to sing.” But then she got serious and said, “Regardless, she has turned out to be the voice of our generation. I’m an actress, and she is the real deal.”

Meryl went on to describe Hillary’s constant fight for women worldwide to stop criminal behavior, seek justice, and provide support. She revealed things not everyone may know about Hillary, such as how when travelling on diplomatic missions she meets not just the country’s leaders, but also the leaders of the local grassroots women’s movements. It’s something that’s automatically on her schedule.

And let’s not forget that brilliant ending that took everyone by surprise when Meryl reached below the podium, pulled out her Oscar, and said, “This is what you get when you play a world leader.” The audience went wild. “But if you want a real world leader and you’re really, really lucky, this is what you get,” Meryl continued, as she directed everyone’s attention to Hillary’s entrance on stage. This was a model introductory speech.

  • Delivery: Good delivery does not call attention to itself. It gets the job done by clearly expressing the message without distraction. Meryl’s delivery combined a certain degree of formality with the most charming attributes of good conversation. She was a bit dramatic—even showing off at times—but she was also direct, spontaneous, and animated. Most of all, she looked like she was thoroughly enjoying every minute with her erect posture,  big smile, confident eye contact, and that charming way she “sighed” so enjoyably at her own jokes.

She controlled the timing, rhythm, and momentum of the speech as skillfully as only an experienced public speaker—or actor—can. And while she had her written speech in front of her, she didn’t read it verbatim. She ad-libbed and took time to react to her message as well as to the responses of her audience. And even when she lost her place and briefly stumbled, she recovered with grace and slipped back into the lighthearted flow—and the limelight.

Public Speaking at its Best

Maybe it takes an actress playing a public speaker to be able to give a powerful introduction to one of the world’s great leaders. Actor or not, Meryl wrote a wining speech, delivered it with heart and soul, and accomplished what she set out to do: She made us realize anew why all American citizens, not just women, are fortunate to have Hillary Clinton traveling the world, leading critical diplomatic initiatives on our behalf. Hillary stands out as a leader, a role model and one of the greatest advocates for women in recent history.

Meryl was right. You get an Oscar for playing a world leader, but you get an adoring and appreciative public who deeply understands the importance of your mission when you are one.

This blog is part of my Wednesday for Women blog series, where I feature stories, resources and information to help women gain greater influence, power, and confidence in their professional and personal life. Please enjoy these weekly Wednesday blogs and forward them to the powerful women in your life.

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Women in the U.S. Senate. 17 Strong…and Hopefully Growing

17 Senate Women
17 Senate Women

Many bloggers (including myself) often lament the dismal number of women in corporate executive leadership positions. And while those figures are low, have you ever noticed how few women represent us in the United States senate? Here are few shocking facts:

  • Since the establishment of the US Senate in 1789, there have been only 39 female Senators.
  • The Senate was all male until 1922, when the first woman Senator, Rebecca Latimer Felton, served for one day. She was appointed by Georgia Governor Thomas W. Hardwick to replace Senator Thomas E. Watson, who had died. The appointment was politically motivated. Hardwick was seeking the Senate seat in the next election and wanted to fill the vacancy with someone who would not be a competitor in the upcoming election. His ploy ultimately failed, and Walter F. George won the election. Because Congress was not in session when Felton was appointed in October, her official appointment came on November 21, 1922, with the swearing in of the newly elected Senator Walter F. George taking place November 22, 1922, making Felton’s tenure the shortest for any Senator in US history.
  • It wasn’t until 1932 that a female graced the senate floor again, when Hattie Caraway of Arkansas became the first woman to win election to the Senate.
  • The first women’s bathroom located outside the Senate Chamber (where the men’s bathroom was conveniently located) wasn’t established until 1993. Before that, female Senators, at the risk of missing a vote, had to run downstairs to share a public restroom with tourists.
  • Currently, only 17 of the 100 US Senators are women.

With 51% of the US population being female, it is striking that women have such limited political representation. Granted, from the founding of this country to early 1900, women were indeed held back from seeking a Senate spot—they couldn’t even vote much less run for an elected position. But with the passing of the 19th Amendment to the US Constitution in 1920, that barrier was removed. So what’s holding women back from seeking political leadership positions today?

Some say it’s the public’s lingering perceptions of gender roles, while others claim it’s sex discrimination. Or it may have more to do with women not wanting to place their life under a microscope, as is commonly done to politicians, or the very real challenge of raising enough money to run for office.

For one politically astute and well informed woman I met last week, it is the fear of public speaking that’s keeping her from her political ambitions. Running for higher office and representing voters requires not only having great command of the issues, but also an easy comfort level speaking in front of all kinds of groups. Whether it’s a town hall presentation, a media interview or a larger main stage speech, public speaking plays a significant role in politics.

Fortunately, public speaking skills are much easier to fix than any of the other potential roadblocks mentioned. By reading some books on the topic, taking courses, and even working with a good speech coach, anyone can strengthen their presentation skills and eliminate their fear of public speaking. So if you’ve ever had the urge to toss your hat into the ring but stopped short because you were uncomfortable speaking in front of a group, there is help. It’s time for women to stand up and be heard—in politics, in corporations, and everywhere in between.

This blog is part of my Wednesday for Women blog series, where I feature stories, resources and information to help women gain greater influence, power, and confidence in their professional and personal life. Please enjoy these weekly Wednesday blogs and forward them to the powerful women in your life.

Sign up for our monthly newsletter to receive valuable tips, techniques and updates on the latest news and events from DeFinis Communications.

In Honor of Presidents’ Day: Public Speaking Lessons from George Washington

Presidents’ Day, also known as George Washington Day, was the first federal holiday to honor an American citizen and was initially celebrated on Washington’s actual birthday, February 22. On January 1, 1971, the federal holiday was shifted to the third Monday in February by the Uniform Monday Holiday Act. This date places the holiday between February 15th and 21st, which makes the name “Washington’s Birthday” a misnomer, since it never lands on Washington’s actual birthday! Regardless of the date or what you call it, no one can deny that our country’s first president was a great leader. I recently read the book Presidential Voices: Speaking Styles from George Washington to George W. Bush by Allan Metcalf. It’s an interesting book and one I highly recommend. In it, Metcalf tells us, “the early years of the Republic through the end of the nineteenth century were the golden age of oratory… Listening to oratory, even for hours at a time, was a favorite entertainment in the days before movies, television, video games, rock concerts, amusement parks, and the internet.”

Interestingly, as it turns out, George Washington was not a great orator. In fact, “he established the precedent that oratorical ability is not a requisite for the presidency.”

One of the major reasons for Washington’s poor speaking skills was his teeth. Contrary to popular belief, his teeth were not made of wood. They were made of hard materials—tusks, bones or teeth of animals or humans, or gold or silver. During the course of his lifetime he had six sets of false teeth, and they did affect his speech. The upper and lower sets of his teeth were connected to each other by steel springs. Washington had to clench his jaw tightly together just to keep his mouth shut. This caused noticeable discomfort and made it difficult to speak for long periods of time.

But speak he did…and we can learn a great deal from the speeches he gave. Some key points include:

Brevity: Because of the pain and discomfort of his teeth, Washington spoke in very short intervals and no more than 15 minutes at a time. Most of his speeches were around 10 minutes. He was a master of keeping his remarks short and to the point.

Varied tone: In his first inaugural address, Washington set the tone of high, formal, ornate style, using long and elaborate sentences of 87 words or more. Yet in his second speech, he spoke plainly and directly. By varying his tone to match the event or situation, he showed his connection to the moment and to the audience’s expectations.

Highly personal: Though Washington looked to the British monarchs’ annual address at the opening session of Parliament as a model for his inaugural address, he chose to use the phrase “My fellow citizens…” He was, after all, the First Citizen and not His Majesty.

Spoke with dignity, formality, and humility: Washington had a quiet, low, monotone voice, perhaps caused by the effort it took to manage his teeth. When he delivered his first inaugural address, his voice was said to be shaky and soft. But while his voice was soft, his bearing was imposing. He was 6’ 2” tall—quite tall for those days—yet his physical presence coupled with his dignified yet humble style kept him from intimidating others.

No matter what your personal speaking style, take a lesson or two from George. After all, if his words, presence and speaking style were able to inspire a young country, they can also inspire today’s speakers.

Happy Birthday, Mr. President.

A Shocking Secret from a Speech Coach

Psst…hey you…yeah, you…do you want to know a secret about someone many people consider one of our country’s greatest public speakers? Okay, here goes…even though he was very eloquent and his words changed history, he often felt pangs of nervousness and anxiety when he stood up to speak. In fact, when he first began speaking, his voice was “shrill, squeaking, piping, unpleasant.” But as he warmed up and calmed down his voice became, “harmonious, melodious-musical.” Wondering who this could be? Well, it’s none other than…Abe Lincoln.

As a speech coach, I’m not surprised by this. I’ve learned over the years that even great speakers can sometimes crumble under the pressure of public speaking. And when they do, they call on professionals like me to help them sooth their nerves and provide skills, tools, and tips to give them the strength they need to garner their personal resources and speak with power and passion.

What did Abe do? Well, watch this rare, never-before seen video to find out.

All I can say is...I’m glad that in a past life I was there to help.

Happy Birthday, Abe!