Conservatives have a moral obligation to complement their philosophy with practical political skills. Mere belief in limited government, traditional family values, free enterprise, and strong national defense is insufficient.
Persuasive speaking, for instance, is fundamental to political success. “Of all the talents bestowed upon men, none is so precious as the gift of oratory. He who enjoys it wields a power more durable than that of a great king. He is an independent voice in the world,” wrote Winston Churchill. How true. The good news is certain techniques exist for gifted and not-so-gifted speakers alike that will increase their likelihood of success.
There was no shortage of oratorical skills on display at last week’s Republican National Convention. Below are six practical techniques derived from its speeches that conservatives with something to say should study and apply.
1.) Share one message. Former presidential speechwriter Peggy Noonan says that “a speech about everything is a speech about nothing.” Time is a scarce and valuable resource. It’s important, then, for the speaker to respect his audience’s time by delivering a coherent, concise, and engaging argument — as opposed to a muddle of mismatched themes. Ask yourself this: Can my audience members summarize my main point in less than 30 seconds? Can I? If you were former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee last Wednesday night, your answer would be a resounding “yes.” He hammered home his theme, “We can do better,” 14 times in his speech. Congressional candidate Mia Love reiterated her theme, “the America I/we know,” six times in less than four minutes!
2.) Use local, living examples. Several speakers — most notably former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush — yielded the floor to regular citizens who have been harmed by overreaching government policies. Barry Goldwater would have approved. Business owners, teachers, and students played a central role in the convention. Likewise, we heard directly from those personally touched by Gov. Mitt Romney’s leadership and compassion, whether Ann Romney, Staples founder Thomas Stemberg, or the Oparowski family, whose account of Romney’s commitment to their late son, David, evoked emotion traditionally lacking in Republican rhetoric, with its firm reliance on logic.
3.) Incorporate gratitude. Consider Rep. Paul Ryan’s recognition of his 78-year-old mother, Betty. Rather than tack his gratitude to the beginning or end of his speech, he incorporated her story as a single mom and small business owner into his message. This showed sincerity. “Her work gave her hope. It made our family proud. And to this day, my mom is my role model,” he said. That message dovetailed nicely with Ann Romney’s speech the night before, which acknowledged “the moms of this nation — single, married, widowed — who really hold this country together.”
4.) Coordinate with fellow speakers. Ann Romney’s theme of love was disarming and inclusive, serving the dual purpose of humanizing her husband and appealing to women voters. Enter New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, whose keynote address emphasized respect over love. This inconsistency was a distraction. No speech exists in a vacuum. He and Mrs. Romney would have appeared in sync had he framed his argument as one of tough love.
5.) Never rely on audience participation. South Dakota Sen. John Thune, otherwise a competent speaker, began his speech with a joke that fell flat. Imagine if he began the speech knowing his success depended only on himself. Any cheers, smiles, or handclapping would have been a welcome addition rather than a requirement for success. Speeches must stand alone if necessary. Gov. Romney, for instance, asked four polling questions that could have served just as well as rhetorical questions: “Does the America we want borrow a trillion dollars from China? Does it fail to find the jobs that are needed for 23 million people and for half the kids graduating from college? Are [its] schools lagging behind the rest of the developed world? And does the America that we want succumb to resentment and division …?”
6.) Allow the other side to advance your argument. Mike Huckabee’s endorsement of Romney was important. Huckabee citing former President Bill Clinton’s endorsement of Romney’s executive experience, however, added more horsepower. Former Democratic Congressman Artur Davis, now a registered Republican, did more to attract disenchanted 2008 Obama supporters than any fiery line delivered by former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty. “[D]o you know why so many of us believed?” asked Davis. “We led with our hearts and our dreams that we could be more inclusive than America had ever been, and no candidate had ever spoken so beautifully. But dreams meet daybreak: the jobless know what I mean, so do the families who wonder how this administration could wreck a recovery for three years and counting. So many of those high-flown words have faded.” Mitt Romney employed this technique, too, citing First Lady Michelle Obama’s praise of Bright Horizons, an early childhood learning center he helped launch through Bain Capital.
These six techniques are powerful. And there are infinitely more to learn. There is no surer way to mediocrity, however, than assuming your own perfection. As someone who teaches and fundraises for an educational foundation that has trained more than 110,033 students, activists, and leaders in the most-effective political techniques since its establishment in 1979, I will tell you there are few things more refreshing than the humility displayed by an individual who admits he or she can use coaching and practice.
The stakes — life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness — are too high for just winging it. It’s not enough to be philosophically sound. In politics, the how is just as important as the what.
John Poreba is the director of regional development for the Leadership Institute, which provides training in campaigns, fundraising, grassroots organizing, youth politics, and communications.