Friday, April 19, 2013

Famous Speech Friday: Francine Wheeler's radio address on gun control reforms

What if the President of the United States stepped aside and let you give a talk in his place? That alone can make a speech famous, and it happened last week to Francine Wheeler, who gave the president's weekly radio address--broadcast on major television networks, YouTube and the White House website, an audience in the millions virtually guaranteed. It's a rare opportunity for any political leader, let alone a citizen, and the first time in the Obama administration that someone other than the president or vice president has delivered this address. The president even sent out a special email explaining the reason for the switch.

Wheeler is the mother of a six-year-old, Ben, who "was murdered in his first-grade classroom on December 14th, exactly 4 months ago this weekend," as she reminded us three paragraphs into this taut and powerful four-and-a-half-minute message. She and her husband were brought to Washington by the White House to lobby Congress on behalf of stricter gun control laws.

The setting was controlled, scripted and focused, with a teleprompter in front of her and her husband David by her side. Yet Wheeler, with a delivery described as "raw" and "struggling to maintain her composure" in press reports, transcended the limits of the setting to speak as a mother of two sons whose grief is still fresh:
David and I lost our beloved son, but Nate lost his best friend. On what turned out to be the last morning of his life, Ben told me, quite out of the blue, “ I still want to be an architect, Mama, but I also want to be a paleontologist, because that’s what Nate is going to be and I want to do everything Nate does.” 
Ben’s love of fun and his excitement at the wonders of life were unmatched. His boundless energy kept him running across the soccer field long after the game was over. He couldn’t wait to get to school every morning. He sang with perfect pitch and had just played at his third piano recital. Irrepressibly bright and spirited, Ben experienced life at full tilt.
I'll just guess the President isn't likely to lend you this microphone, but I still think you can learn something from this famous speech:
  • You can balance tears and a straightforward delivery: Here, the trappings of the seasoned politician--supportive spouse by her side, tight camera focus, quiet setting, teleprompter and script--help shore up the emotional impact on the speaker. Even so, Wheeler tears up nearly every other paragraph in this talk, underscoring for us what moves her: references to her son, to reactions following the shootings, to the need to the act. It's powerful. Another help: Wheeler's text deftly alternates positive memories with difficult passages, giving her someplace to go with her emotions.
  • Share something of what your life is like now: When you're the focus of attention in a tragedy, perhaps a survivor yourself, even a glimpse of your reality today can lend immediacy and clarity to your remarks. "When I packed for Washington on Monday, it looked like the Senate might not act at all. Then, after the President spoke in Hartford, and a dozen of us met with Senators to share our stories, more than two-thirds of the Senate voted to move forward." A simple statement that conveys action on the issue and the whirlwind in which she finds herself, this pair of sentences cements a connection.
  • A specific call to action makes your talk effective: This wasn't just a memorial speech or eulogy, since Wheeler's role was to encourage other citizens to take action. "Please help us do something before our tragedy becomes your tragedy," her heart-tugging plea, comes at the turning point in this address that is just 12 scant paragraphs. But Wheeler also opens with a signal that she is looking for action, and winds up with concrete action steps and specific reasons why action is needed now.
Ultimately, this plea went unanswered as the Senate bill failed the week after this address. You can read the transcript of Wheeler's address here and watch the video below. What do you think of this famous speech?

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