Friday, October 21, 2011

Famous Speech Friday: Ann Richards' 1988 Democratic Convention keynote

She's remembered as a longtime governor of Texas, but Ann Richards was the state treasurer of Texas when she gave this keynote speech and a few years from the governorship. Even the state archives in Texas describe her "vitality and outrageousness," two qualities on display in this famous speech.

Richards was only the second woman to give the keynote convention speech in the Democratic party, something she tackled at the start of the speech by remembering fellow Texan Barbara Jordan's keynote. "Two women in 160 years is about par for the course" was her dry summing-up. And her opening included a then-unusual good evening in Spanish, quickly followed by this line: "After listening to George Bush all these years, I figured you needed to know what a real Texan sounds like."

The convention keynote follows a time-honored formula. It's designed to unite the crowd, remind them of the party's noble goals, acknowledge the party's nominees and serve as a major salvo against the opposing party's candidate. Richards fulfilled all those roles, but took the attacks on the opposing party to another level, using humor, vocal variety, gestures and folksy Texas style to do so. In this speech's most famous line, she said of George H. W. Bush, the Republican nominee:

Now that he's after a job that he can't get appointed to, he's like Columbus discovering America. He's found child care. He's found education. Poor George. He can't help it. He was born with a silver foot in his mouth.

Now, you know a speechwriter or two was likely behind that. But Richards' delivery is what brought the house down--just one of several moments in this speech that did so. Here's what you can learn from this famous speech:

  • Make sure your speech and delivery are a reflection of you:  Far from trying to hide her accent, her sense of humor or her Texas roots, Richards embraced them in her public speaking. Her delivery's authentic, not automatic, and it made this speech stand out.
  • Use your voice as an emphasis instrument: From inflections to pauses to long drawn-out syllables, Richards offers a symphony of vocal variety in this speech. It's worth listening to it while looking at the full text (links below) to see how she does this. For example, you'll read the line "I'm a grandmother now. And I have one nearly perfect granddaughter named Lily." But what you'll hear is "neeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeearly perfect granddaughter," an extending of the syllables that brings a laugh from the audience and keeps the line from being a cloying one.
  • Use props to keep your words concrete:  Richards reads a letter from a young mother during the speech -- and actually holds up a page and reads from it. In a room made for teleprompters, she turns away from the perfect camera angle to read it. In doing so, she makes the letter seem real, a tangible and simple tactic to bring the soaring rhetoric down to real life.

The one-woman play "Ann" will be performed at the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in December and January, featuring actress Holland Taylor (best known for her role on Two and a Half Men). It's a celebration of Richards, her speaking, her humor and more. You can watch the full speech in the video below or read the full text here. What do you think of this famous speech?

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