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.

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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.

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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.”

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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.”