Thursday, May 5, 2016

Why memorizing your high-stakes speech frees you: Sen. Amy Klobuchar

How important is it, really, to memorize your speech...especially if you will have access to a teleprompter? Just ask U.S. Senator Amy Klobuchar.

Back when she was a county prosecutor in Minnesota, Klobuchar was tapped to speak at the 2004 Democratic National Convention, the highlight of which was Barack Obama's stirring keynote speech. For her rather less important three-minute speech in the middle of afternoon 3 of the convention, Klobuchar was given a set of rules. She'd be using a teleprompter, and under no circumstances could she make any jokes about then-President George W. Bush. So, given that first proviso, she decided she didn't need to memorize her short speech.

That's when her mentor, former Vice President Walter Mondale, stepped in. Klobuchar related the tale on episode 39 of The Axe Files, David Axelrod's new podcast:
Klobuchar: That was my first national convention and I’m ready to go out there the day before I give my 3-minute speech for John Kerry. I was a prosecutor at the time and he says to me, “Well, have you memorized the speech?” and I go, “Well, no, there’s you know, there’s teleprompters” And he said, “Don’t trust a teleprompter.“ "That is how Carter said Hubert Horatio Hornblower [instead of Hubert Horatio Humphrey] at that the Carter convention." 
And I said, all right. It seemed outdated. I’m up there on the stage. Patrick Leahy’s speaking, the teleprompter goes dark. And I’m standing there, I look in the front row and there, waiting for me to speak, is Walter Mondale and I’ve never seen a more “I told you so” look in my life.
I get up to the stage, I give my speech. I don’t use the teleprompter at all, it came up in the middle and, because I memorized it like he said. And it went really well. And the organizers had told me that I couldn’t even use a little joke about George Bush where I said something about…

Axelrod: Yes, I remember that convention.

Klobuchar: Yeah

Axelrod: I was there with Obama. He spoke there, too.

Klobuchar: Right. Well, really? In any case, maybe little more notable than my 3 minutes but…

Axelrod: But he also memorized his speech.

Klobuchar: That’s right. But anyway, I had a joke, a Barbara Jordan quote, about how what America wants is something as good as its country and a promise as good as its country. And I said, I’d like to end with something famous from someone from Texas and I paused...not George Bush. And they prohibited me from using that joke. And after the teleprompter went dead, I’m like…

Axelrod: So did you use it? Did you ad-lib? 
Klobuchar: Yes, I did. I completely ad-libbed because I decided if they were having technological problems…
Too often, I see speakers look at memorizing your speech as something awful--limiting, structured, nervous-making. But Klobuchar learned to see it as freeing her from that nervousness, or the prospect of technological failure...and then freed herself from one of the other rules, while she was at it. I think it's telling, too, that Obama used the same insurance policy on his more prominent speech.