Campaign Speaking: The Art of Appearance

by Dustin Lane

If, for some twisted reason, you ever become interested in politics and try to run for office, you're going to have to make a campaign speech at some point. From the President of the United States all the way down to a diminutive local position, you'll be making speeches in an attempt to win a plurality of voters. The key to making successful campaign speeches is appearance. If you appear to be the better candidate during a speech, you're cause will ultimately be helped. Well, how do you "appear" to be the better candidate without seeming too political? We all know that the general public distrusts "political" candidates, so I've found some other words that start with "p" to use in your campaign speech. The Six P's of Campaign Speeches are Preparation, Perception, Precision, Poise, Passion, and Personality. If you'll incorporate these six terms in the ways I'm going to discuss, you'll no doubt be on your way to getting elected to the office of your dreams.

  1. Preparation

    I've often found as a candidate, that one of the most important things I can do is be thoroughly prepared before I face the masses. Of the six, it's the one that you should spend the most time with. You may only be speaking for a few minutes, but those few minutes are crucial in how you appear to voters. Thus, you should prepare as much as it takes so that by the time you face voters, you'll feel confident that you'll "nail" the speech.

    You first need to decide if you're going to use notes or not in your speech. If you decide to ditch the notes, you will be extremely impressive to your audience if you can pull the speech off without a hitch. However, there is always the danger that something could go wrong. Having brief notes will ensure that you will deliver your speech well, and is far more desirable than not using notes- especially if there is a chance that you could forget what to say in your speech and thus, appear very awkward and uncomfortable to voters

    If you decide not to use notes, you should plan on preparing twice as long. When high profile candidates go on the road, making campaign speeches without notes, they are usually reciting a "stump speech"- something that they use at every stop and have practiced many times. Each stop becomes just another "practice session" and the speech is ingrained in their mind. I do not expect you to go city to city practicing a speech without notes, but if you do decide to go without them, I recommend practicing your speech in front of a mirror or a group of your friends at least a dozen times. This will familiarize you with the main points of your speech and you will be comfortably prepared for when you have to appear in front of voters.

    Once, when I did not use notes for a campaign speech and I didn't practice my speech much beforehand, I fumbled miserably in front of the audience. I missed main points, rambled along without clear direction, and looked like an unprepared candidate. I do not recommend this as a campaign strategy. Instead, if you are limited in time or feel as if you'll "mess-up," don't hesitate to use notes. Notes will ensure that you won't forget your main points and you'll have much better flow. If your notes consist of a few brief phrases, you won't sacrifice valuable eye contact with the voters and will still appear to be very smooth. Thus, preparing adequate notes can be a valuable way to insure that you will be an effective candidate.

    Another important aspect of preparation is figuring out, what exactly, to say. You want to standout in a positive way to the voters, so I suggest that you prepare to find specific examples that differentiate you from your opponent. Then, you can highlight these differences in your speech to make yourself appear to be an "outstanding" candidate. Basically, you want to create a "need" for people to elect you based on your preparation of the content of your speech.

    A friend of mine who successfully ran for the position of ASWC President, thoroughly prepared his campaign speeches by focusing on his experience. Thus, he made experience a factor in the race and the voters decided to reward his preparation with a victory. So, if you prepare by picking a few things that distinguish you above your opponents, the speech can greatly influence what they think is important about you and you can use that to your advantage.

    Finally, before you make your campaign speech, you should be prepared by attending to your physical needs such as hunger and thirst. I recommend snacking lightly throughout the day to make sure that you don't have stomach problems from over or under eating by the time you get up there to speak. Your churning stomach will invariably cause you some discomfort, and you will project it to the voters in some form or another. Another thing you can do to physically prepare before your speech is to drink plenty of water. Hydration is the quickest way to feel healthy (plus, it also helps to keep your throat well moistened!).

    In addition, you need to prepare by knowing what to wear. Since you need to appear like a stellar candidate, you should plan on looking sharp. Nicely combed hair, clean clothes that match, and good-looking shoes are all necessities. You definitely do not want to look like a slob when presenting yourself as a quality candidate. People will associate your physical appearance with potential job performance. Thus, proper attire and hygiene will promote your goal of appealing to the voters.

  2. Perception

    As a candidate, one of the major challenges you face is getting your message across in an effective manner so that you will seem to be the better candidate. How do you do this? You need to anticipate the type of audience you will be facing so that you can perceive how they'll react to your ideas. Thus, if you have accurately perceived your audience's beliefs, you can tailor your speech to make it easier for them to understand or accept you. If you can master this art, then you are well on your way to becoming a successful politician.

    However, it's not as easy as it sounds. As Steven Brydon and Michael Scott suggest, "Organizational affiliations, for example, often tell you a good deal about an audience." So, you could identify the beliefs and attitudes of your audience by the situation your speaking in. If you're talking with a group of students, you should definitely discuss issues that appeal to students like activities, organizations, administration problems, etc. Thus, you can establish yourself as a "mainstream" candidate by identifying with the specific concerns of your voters. In this way, you can use your audience's perception advantageously to appeal to them and get more votes

    Several years back, when I ran for Speaker of the House in a Mock Congress sponsored by my Member of Congress, I faced a daunting challenge: there were ten other candidates running against me and an audience of a hundred. I knew the make-up of the student audience- high school, slightly conservative, smart, and into politics. So, I used this to my advantage and implied similar values in my speech to identify with their attitudes. Tailoring the speech to the audience certainly didn't hurt my victorious campaign.p

    One of the best ways to use perception when it comes to campaign speaking, though, is to adjust on the fly. It's a difficult thing to do, because it happens unexpectedly. But when you're up there speaking and you perceive that the audience is feeling a certain way, don't be afraid to play off their emotions. If the audience looks uncomfortable or bored, you could say something to the effect of "I know how you feel, it's been a long day." 

    Or, if you sense that they're excited, you can build excitement in your own voice and play off of it. If someone makes a comment that you happen to hear, you should reply with a witty reply if you've got one and it fits in the situation. By adjusting on the fly, the audience will consider you "one of them" and this will help you. Your response to audience feedback can be the key to success in connecting with their attitudes of the situation.

  3. Precision

    Another pertinent "p" of campaign speaking is precision. When you are precise with the words you use and the gestures you use, you can be extremely effective at connecting with the audience and appearing to be the best candidate.

    First of all, precise flow and word choice will invariably make your speech easier for the audience to relate and understand; this is what you want. As I stated earlier, flow will keep your audience focused on you and if you are very smooth and precise in your delivery, they will be very impressed. However, if you don't know precisely what you're going to say, then you will end up saying "um" a lot and will stumble around. Of course, this goes along with preparation, but as you practice, you can think about which words to say and what phrases to use to best connect with the audience. Thus if you have careful, calculated, and precise wording, the voters will be able to understand you much better than if you were talking without clear wording in your mind.

    Secondly, precision when it comes to hand gestures can be very helpful. If you know when to bang the podium, clench a fist, reach out to the audience, wave, wink, nod, smile, or point, you can be very effective in your communication. Making calculated and precise gestures at certain times will increase the effectiveness of your speech and let the audience know that you mean business.

    A strategy employing precise gestures came during Clinton's 1992 campaign. Stephen Wood and Jean DeWitt write, "by moving to the edge of the stage, closer to the audience, he appeared to be more comfortable, more accessible." Also, "to punctuate points of emphasis, Clinton's physical gestures were characterized by a lightly clenched fist with his index finger bent, not quite pointing at the audience."Thus, in that presidential debate anyway, Clinton precisely used gesture for effectiveness and to improve his image with the voters. He was elected to the Presidency less than a month later. Clearly, precision applies to gestures, for they can help you connect to your audience.

  4. Poise

    In order to look good during a speech, you must have poise. Without it, you won't and that's the harsh truth. Think about it, what voters are looking for is someone who will be calm, collected, and rational while in office. Your composure during your speech projects the image of you as an individual. If you are poised, this sends the correct message that you will be very level headed while in office and will serve people in an appropriate manner.

    Likewise, this can work in the opposite manner. If you appear to be out of control and show too much emotion, people may think you are unfit to hold office. Nobody wants a "hot head" making decisions that affect many people.

    Being poised means that you won't get flustered if something goes wrong; you are able to adjust if you need to. You would need to adjust to situations in office, so the voters would want to be assured that you won't react in an adverse way to unexpected conditions. If you have a good attitude going into your speech and remind yourself that good composure is critical, you should be able to prevent yourself from reacting negatively to any conditions that may arise.

    One place where negative little surprises may occur is in the form of audience questions. You must always stay composed and never appear to be flustered when an audience member asks a question. If the audience sees you get angry at one of their own members, they may turn against you as well. This would prevent your goal. So, what you do is keep a good attitude going into questions and remind yourself that all questions are valid. Although it may seem like questions are direct attacks on your character, this is rarely the case. We naturally go on the defensive when we're lay ourselves out in the open for questioning.

    During my recent election, I failed to recognize the importance of composure during the first of my three debates. I took what was most likely a very legitimate question to be an assault on my personality. I naturally got defensive and responded with a quick retort that put the questioner on the defensive. This did not help my cause of looking professional. By the third debate, I realized how important poise was during the question period. I promised myself that no questions were direct character attacks but legitimate questions and that if I answered them in a very honest and positive way, I would look much better than I did before. It worked. I responded to questions with "thank you for asking that; you have a valid concern..." Thus, by looking at audience members with questions as potential supporters rather than potential enemies, I was able to stay positive and I believe I was looked upon favorably by the audience.

  5. Passion

    When trying to appear to be worthy in the eyes of the voter, it is important to appeal to them on an emotional level. Thus, you should use passion to give your campaign speech a sense of purpose. People essentially like candidates who seem like real, down to earth people. Real people have emotions and feel strongly about certain issues. You are more likely to connect with your voting audience if you frame yourself as being passionate about similar issues.

    In his 1992 campaign, Bill Clinton told real stories about his upbringing and his family, giving his campaign a sense of purpose. According to DeWitt and Wood, "Humble beginnings is often a direct connection with American political mythos." Thus, by injecting a sense of personal passion in his campaign, Clinton connected with voters on a very personal level.p

    You can do the same. All you have to do is emphasize the issues you feel strongly enough about to merit running for office. Perhaps, if you tell a specific story or two that gave you such strong convictions, you will communicate enough emotion and passion to convince your audience that you have the necessary purpose and desire to complete the job to the best of your capabilities. Communicating this is invaluable. What's the point of running for office if you aren't going to care what you do while in office?

    I used this method when I ran for office not too long ago. During the afternoon of my second debate, I had gone around campus for three hours, talking with real students about the nature of student government and if elected, what I could do to make the campus better. These students gave me real ideas, and I felt as if I needed to serve them. Thus, in my speech that night, I told about my afternoon and of specific ideas, and people told me that I spoke with passion. In this way, I feel as if I related to students in the audience better than if I was just some other ASWC insider, trying to move up the ladder of power. So, I believe that passion, if you've got it, can really send the message that you've got purpose and commitment and will be looked favorably upon by your voting audience.

  6. Personality

    Last, but certainly not least, is personality. Likeable people have fun personalities. Let's face it, we like these people because they can make us laugh. Similarly, a candidate who exhibits a light-hearted side is certainly going to be more likeable than someone who is stiff and rigid. If you show that you have a fun personality, you too can promote yourself as a "real" person with a fun personality.

    When I ran for Speaker of the House and won, I used the element of humor in my speech. As I recall, I made jokes about Newt Gingrich, as well as Democratic Fundraising in an attempt to show that I could poke fun at situations and be entertaining. I feel as if this is what distinguished me from all the other candidates and their seriousness. I can't deny it: people will vote for you if they like you, and it's easier to like you if you demonstrate a warm personality and charisma.
    Of course, recent presidential campaigns have been full of characters. Phrases such as "I didn't inhale," "He doesn't have Al Gore; I do," and "Read my lips," have helped to give the candidates personality. I'm still convinced that if Bob Dole had gone on Saturday Night Live, the David Letterman Show, or a Credit Card commercial before the election, he would have gone a long way in shedding his image of being cranky and rigid. He would have been seen as the "Joking Bobster," instead of "Senator Robert Dole."

    You can learn from this. You should incorporate just enough personality in your campaign speech to distinguish yourself as a real person, connect with the audience on a real level, and give yourself a likeable image. To do this, I recommend inserting a joke at the beginning of the speech to loosen the atmosphere up and get the people associating with you as early as possible. 

    You should make a self-depreciating joke, not offending anyone; or else you could jokingly ad-lib to some situation that comes up unexpectedly.
    The idea here is to strengthen your relationship with the audience by appearing to be like a humorous neighbor. Too much joking can reduce your credibility, but a little touch of personality here and there helps in distinguishing you as personable character.

    Thus, if you ever consider a run for office at any level, I suggest you pay attention to the six p's of political campaigning: Preparation, Perception, Precision, Poise, Passion, and Personality. If you incorporate all of these, I guarantee that you will be looked favorably upon, for you will not be seen as that dangerous "p," Political. People want real people in office, not some politician. If you can relate with them using these methods through your speech, you will succeed in having a particularly positive performance!

    Good luck, and I'll see ya on the campaign trail.