Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Unconventional Wisdom VI: Some Advice for the Non-Keynoters

By Mark Katz

"Friends, Romans, Countrymen, lend me your ears…."

About to embark upon "the speech of his life," Julius Caesar (by way of the speechwriter otherwise known as Shakespeare) asked each audience member for both of their ears. Because he knew that in the mayhem of the public square, most people listen to a speech with one ear at most. This is the same challenge many speakers will face this week in Denver. So when my colleague Dan Gerstein asked me to provide some advice to those who will stand at the podium this week, I chose to address those non-keynoters who will have to earn the full attention of an audience otherwise engaged in gossip, chit-chat and power-schmoozing. Here are a few thoughts on how to deliver a speech that does not just become background noise.

1. Here's the challenge I often present to my clients: imagine someone has just heard your speech. What message would you like that person to repeat back to you – and then work backwards from there. In reality, this question replaces a “word count” with an idea count. And of course, that is the beauty of an actual idea -- it can be explored and expressed in any number of ways. This is where real ideas get separated from mere talking points. My advice: dig deeper into a fewer number of ideas. For my money, the most memorable speeches and presentations are those that pick a single compelling idea and execute the hell out of it.

2. This is a partisan event for a self-proclaimed post-partisan candidate. What better way to tow the party line than to say “no!” to the easy, familiar rhetoric of partisan politics? Instead, challenge the audience. Say things that will stop chatterers in mid-sentence to ask one another, "Did he just say what I thought he said?" Question an orthodoxy, concede something obvious, give the Republicans credit for an accomplishment or at least an honorable intention – all in the service of validating a larger point within a fuller context. When delivered in speech after speech, fierce partisanship is mind numbing. Gain the attention of the true believers by saying something that sends oxygen to the brain. More specifically....

3. What would Jon Stewart do? In an age where more and more people come home and watch The Daily Show and The Colbert Report, there is a growing understanding that humor is a form of communication that shapes debates in strategic arena. And what is the Pepsi Center this week if not a strategic arena? Almost any message can be translated into a humorous expression – and the best ones become sound bite that both make a point and makes the rounds. Twenty years ago, the late Ann Richards delivered some one-liners that many of us can still repeat today. Yes, they were highly partisan, but they only intended to insult an opponent, not the audience. Also, they were undeniably funny, making it easier to say things that would otherwise sound strident. Whether directed at yourself or others, humor is the best way to say the things that speak the subtext. Of course: all humor comes with this caveat: the right joke will get reprinted in the next issue of Newsweek, the wrong joke will get reprinted in your obituary. (Come to think of it, also try not to think about how things ultimately turned out for Julius Caesar.)

4. Without glancing above, please repeat these three ideas back to me.

Katz, who worked with President Clinton to produce his annual series of humor speeches to the Washington press corps, runs The Soundbite Institute in New York.

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