What Makes a Good Convention Speech?

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Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus (L) and conention Chief Executive Officer William Harris (R) unveil the stage inside of the Tampa Bay Times Forum in preparation for the Republican National Convention on August 20, 2012 in Tampa, Florida.

The convention speech is a milestone in every campaign, a moment when the candidate is guaranteed to be heard by millions of Americans. The better nomination speeches are also remembered, and the best can even win over crucial swing voters. So TIME asked former presidential speechwriters: What  should Mitt Romney and Barack Obama say? Here are nine guidelines taken from their answers.
Know your two audiences.  

Each candidate will give his speech to a friendly crowd of partisans in the convention hall. But there is also an audience of undecided voters who may watch the speeches at home. “You want the crowd in front you applauding and screaming and climbing on their chairs to stamp with delight,” says Peter Robinson, former speechwriter for Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush. At the same time, the nominee at least needs sympathy from those sitting in front their TVs. “You want both audiences thinking, ‘That’s my kind of guy. He cares about what I care about,’” Robinson says.

(PHOTOS: The Rich History of Mitt Romney)

Say something new. 

“You want to reset the stump speech,” says Ken Khachigian, a speechwriter for Richard Nixon and Reagan. Leave the lyrics to “America the Beautiful”at home, and treat the acceptance speech as a fresh opening argument, he says. The rest of the campaign is the trial, and the election itself is the verdict.

Make them laugh.

The rules of Public Speaking 101 still apply. Making an audience laugh early on puts everyone at ease, Robinson says. Self-deprecating jokes are also useful for addressing perceived weaknesses. Jeff Shesol, a former Clinton speechwriter, recalls that in 1988, George H.W. Bush deftly handled his reputation for being an awkward public performer: “Tonight is for big things,” Bush said. “I’ll try to hold my charisma in check.”

Tell your story–or at least make sure someone does.

“The most successful acceptance speeches are those that really draw a strong connection between the man and the moment,” Shesol says. “All of the life experiences of so-and-so make him the ideal person to lead this country.” But while Obama thrives on his biography, most people now know it, so he’ll have to weave elements of the man he is into the President he’s become. Meanwhile, Romney isn’t always comfortable talking about his background (see: Mormonism). And in the convention spotlight, the nominee needs to feel at ease. GOP speechwriters recommend that Romney let third parties establish the personal connection. That could be his wife, Rep. Paul Ryan or even a video montage.

(PHOTOS: The Obama Presidency in Pictures)

Divide and conquer.

In addition to tackling subjects that may be uncomfortable for the nominee, supporting acts can rile up various constituencies and check items off a nominee’s to-do list. For Romney, Tim Pawlenty can take care of “Make me look like a regular guy.” For Obama, Biden can tackle “Emphasize how bad stuff looked when I took office.” These people can also brag about the candidate and get savagely partisan in a way the candidate can’t, Shesol says. But there’s also a caveat: most people outside the convention will never watch anything but the main event.

Be partisan.

While the nominee doesn’t want to do the dirtiest rhetorical work, he does need to look tough. “You’ve got to attack the other side,” says Robinson. “You have to demonstrate the capacity to win the partisan fight.” In 1980, Reagan played on Jimmy Carter’s “Trust me” catchphrase from four years before, Khachigian recalls. “For Obama it was ‘hope and change,’” he says. “If Romney can’t take those words and turn them back against the President, I’d be surprised.”

(PHOTOS: Political Pictures of the Week, Aug. 11-17)

Be bipartisan, too.

Yes, a nominee has to attack, Robinson says, but afterward he needs to be magnanimous. “You want to demonstrate that you’re presidential–once this fight is over, that you will be able to lift the nation above the merely partisan,” he says. Robinson breaks down the speech into three basic parts:

  1. Your diagnosis of what’s wrong with the country
  2. What you intend to do about it
  3. What ideals you’re acting upon

Be specific, but not too specific.

When nominees get to the part when they lay out policy prescriptions, the audience needs to feel like they are hearing a real plan. “You don’t say the dollar amount by which you’re going to cut the budget,” Robinson says. “But you’ve got to talk about Medicare.” Khachigian recommends sticking to three to five “pillars.” Obama has to get through two sets of these: things he’s accomplished and the things he has yet to do.

Leave people inspired.

In an ideal world, the audiences at the convention hall and at home would be turning to hug each other after the candidate’s speech, overwhelmed by the candidate’s perfect empathy and dedication to American exceptionalism. “The biggest danger is a missed opportunity,” Shesol says. “Convention speeches are generally pretty well-written and generally go down pretty well. But very few of them live on. Very few of them will stand as a defining moment.”

11 comments
sacredh
sacredh

Romney would be smart not to mention the republican party platform. It's not going to allow abortion exceptions in the cases of rape or incest. He'll also have to hope that the viewing audience at home is all white. The republican party today isn't too friendly with "others'.

anon76returns
anon76returns

Tip 10:  If you're a Republican, don't mention any actual Republican proposals.  They don't sit well with audience #2.

sacredh
sacredh

Tip 11: Watch the camera crews play a version of "Where's Waldo?" trying to spot a minority member in the convention crowd.

kbanginmotown
kbanginmotown

Rmoneytron 2012 checklist:

- Know your 2 audiences: Warning! Warning! Is Obamneycare Good or Bad? Danger, Danger!

- Say something new: Fehrnstrom has been programmed to "Shake the Etch-a-Sketch" on the morning of 30aug12. Check.

- Make them laugh: Bain Capital "Morning Laffs" taskforce reinstated. Check.

- Tell your story: Warning! Warning! Draft deferments. Vulture Capitalism. Deleting:1965-2006...Check.

- Divide and Conquer: "Rile up various constituences". Engage GOTP. Check.

- Be Partisan:  What?!? You kiddin' me? This is the GOP! CHECK!

- Be Specific: Warning! Danger!

- but not too specific: Whew! Current algorthim unchanged. Check.

- Leave People Inspired: Warning! Warning! Danger! Danger!

MrObvious
MrObvious

Anyways, here's me stating that righyies will say that it was the most bestest speech ever. Moving, funny, hard hitting, specific and so brilliant that Obama is sure to lose in November.

pollardty
pollardty

Convention speeches are irrelevant if Republicans are can stop enough students, poor people and minorities from being able to vote. The speeches are only to give our pundit class something to pundit about.

ERenger
ERenger

I've never seen Romney give a good speech. He'll need to rely on others to do the heavy lifting. 

AfGuyReturns
AfGuyReturns

"To be immortal, a speech need not be eternal." - anonymous public speaking professor

deconstructiva
deconstructiva

Thanks. Katy. I’d suggest “don’t lie.” Romney’s been doing a lot of that lately and yes, the corporate media is really slow to pick up on memes / lies / etc., but once they notice, look out. Instead of “divide and conquer” I’d propose “unite and rule” to unite varied audiences …if that’s possible for Romney, which I doubt. (And yes, “unite and rule” came from Ryan’s dream girl Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead in Ellsworth Toohey’s last speech to Peter Keating.)

DonQuixotic
DonQuixotic

What makes a good Convention Speech?  How about optimism and a rational plan of action versus divisiveness and vitriol?  Can you guess which candidate is which?