Friday, September 5, 2008

Noonan to speakers: Make 'em laugh

One of the most eloquent women--and writers--in our time is Peggy Noonan, now an author and columnist, but known as one of the best presidential speechwriters. In her column yesterday, opining on what John McCain should do in his acceptance speech at the convention, Noonan offered an eloquent piece of advice that women speakers can take advantage of: Make your audience laugh:
A voter laughing is half yours, and just received a line he can repeat next weekend over a beer at the barbecue or online at Starbucks. Here is a fact of American politics: If you make us laugh we spread your line for free.

I do not understand the absence of humor, that powerful weapon, that rhetorical cannon, in this year's campaign. There are a lot of things to say here but let me tell you the first I think of. America is a huge and lonely country. We are vast, stretch coast to coast, live in self-sufficient pods; modern culture tends us toward the atomic, the fractured and broken up. When two people meet, as they come to know each other as neighbors or colleagues, one of the great easers, one of the great ways of making a simple small human connection is: shared laughter. We are a political nation. We talk politics. So fill that area with humor: sly humor, teasing humor, humor that speaks a great truth or makes a sharp point.
It's advice that women speakers are well-equipped to try, as Noonan suggests the intimate connection that can be made with an audience member by making them laugh, or bringing a smile forward. It's a wonderful way to make a tense audience loosen up--think of Ronald Reagan's "there you go again" line when he was attacked in debates, which made everyone smile at its non-anxious humor. And it bespeaks confidence on the speaker's part. Try some eloquent humor in your next speech and let me know how it goes.

about those convention teleprompters

So many people have Googled their way to this blog to ask whether speakers used teleprompters at the two political conventions that I think it's worth a short discussion. The answer is yes: Speakers expect to use teleprompters at conventions, where the hall--and the television audience beyond it--is huge. And while most people giving a speech don't use teleprompters, there's no shame in doing so. The primary advantage? You can read your speech without looking down and away from the cameras.

Teleprompters don't relieve you of the need to practice your speech and they don't guarantee smooth delivery. Practice still makes, well, almost perfect. But teleprompters primarily help you look active and engaged with the audience, instead of your text. They don't have much to do with making the speaker more eloquent.

Here's what former Reagan speechwriter Peggy Noonan wrote in her Wall Street Journal column yesterday, for example, about whether John McCain should use a teleprompter:
I am told alternately that he has given up on the teleprompter and will go straight from text, and that he will use a teleprompter. I assume the latter is true. If it is it will be interesting to see if he has mastered it. That will tell us if he practiced the speech...If he's reading from text, well, it is not true that this is impossible in the media age. People didn't use teleprompters until 30 years ago. But when McCain reads straight from text we tend to see a lot of the top of his head, with the soft white hair and the pink brow glistening under the lights. Which tends to accentuate his age. So how he does the speech is of more than academic interest.
In fact, both McCain and Sarah Palin, his running mate, used both text and teleprompter, a confusing mix--I'd recommend one or the other. And in Michelle Obama's case, interviews with her after the speech revealed that her speech was not too different from her stump speech, which means she's well-practiced in its delivery and comfortable with it. Again, the teleprompter isn't the key to smooth delivery.

Readers have been asking questions like "where are the teleprompters?" and the answer usually is "out of camera range" and "near or below the camera." In this photo, a teleprompter at the 2004 Republican convention in New York is located below a bank of cameras. (Photo by vidiot from Flickr)