Insights from a Speaking Immersion…

For three days last week I heard (and experienced) over 100 leaders speaking to an audience of 11,000 – including a couple dozen Senators and Representatives, Presidential candidates, authors, celebrities, and news anchors. (Most of the videos are available here.) It was an amazing experience at CPAC. This post is purely about the insights from this total speaking immersion - not the politics. What can we learn from the experience each person created for the audience? How did these folks handle the pressure? And what is the penalty when using the teleprompter as a crutch? (I sat in line with a teleprompter every day, and observed closely.)

  • Best speaker – Senator Marco Rubio from Florida. If this was a contest he’d win in a walk. Most inspirational, funny yet fiery, didn’t even use notes, let alone a teleprompter. Powerful messaging as well as congruent and confident behavior. My guess is he will be in the White House some day, other things being equal.
  • Biggest lesson – Don’t read speeches. Period. It is best by far to know your material and refer to notes. If you have to have a script, know it so well you can just refer to it. And if you have to use the teleprompter, learn to use it well. It amazes me how few people learn this skill. And one of those who does use it well is…
  • Biggest Rock Star Governor Sarah Palin packed the house, and she was the last speaker after three long days of just listening to speakers! And she didn’t disappoint this crowd who were her people – raucous continuous applause. Her message was not new, but was powerfully delivered. As stated earlier, she used the teleprompter very professionally – about the best I’ve seen. When she was done, thousands of people hovered trying to get an autograph, or even a glimpse, for a good 30 minutes.
  • Worst speaker – hate to point out a worst, but it is worth the lesson. Florida Governor Rick Scott’s reputation preceded him as he accomplished a huge upset to get elected in 2010, so I was surprised at how poor a communicator. One of the worst examples of reading a speech (and this by teleprompter) as he spoke in a monotone. I’m sure he didn’t mean to give the air of arrogance with his head tilted up, but he did. I was surprised he got elected communicating like that. But then, he probably doesn’t communicate like that every day – but then why become mechanical on the biggest stage. Such a waste.
  • The three GOP primary candidates who were there:
    • Senator Rick Santorum was most passionate with a clear message. He rarely referred to his script – he knew his content and was energetic with good eye communication to the audience (interesting, as this is his major weakness in interviews and one-on-one communications). Clever to have his entire family on stage behind him for the whole speech.
    • Speaker Newt Gingrich is probably the most gifted extemporaneous speaker of the three, particularly with glibness sprinkled with surprise. He can wander but he stayed on message at CPAC, effectively proposing his stump speech points.
    • Governor Mitt Romney was weakest. He used the teleprompter pretty well, but he was mechanical, and became cadenced which felt inauthentic. (Teleprompter reading tends to encourage repetitive cadence.) And even while forceful he was held back – he always seems to be playing the role of running for President.

This post is too long anyway, so I’ll pause for the key point here, and then if you want you can go on and read some notes on the many other speakers – most good, some not so. But either way…

  • Don’t think because you say the words, people will get them. A speech is not about information as much as it is about the experience – the communication experience the listener has with you for the entire time of your communication.

Sure, the experience includes the messaging, but it doesn’t matter how great your messaging is if you get in the way. People can tune out speakers in a few minutes if not seconds, and we tend to ignore this fact at our peril. The unconscious cues – and there are dozens of key ones – go a long way at getting our message across – or not. Spend three days listening to hundreds of different communication experiences like I just did, and it will be even clearer.


Notes on some of the other notable speakers at CPAC:

Governor Mike Huckabee - no teleprompter, excellent and funny. Candor, fire. Why don't all speakers look at Huckabee and Rubio and channel them.

Governor Bobby Jindal – great presentation with facts. Reeled off his Louisiana accomplishments, but with fire and energy and no arrogance. This is not the Bobby Jindal who did so poorly in making the State of the Union rebuttal in 2009.

Jay Sekulow - strong and straight. Fiery also.

Governor Bob McDonnell - no teleprompter, and he walked the stage! Surprisingly the only one to do this, and he was very effective. Also told stories,  and forceful.

Carly Fiorina – excellent, and so much better than as CEO at HP. No teleprompter, and used a script well as reference.

Ann Coulter – funny we expected, and she was. Also outrageous, as she could only get away with. I was impressed that after her start she did have a message, not just comedy.

Laura Ingraham - good like Coulter. Used a pen with script – seeming to mark things off as she went along. She wasn’t of course, but it was an interesting, and effective, technique.

Al Cardenas – Dynamic content from this head of the convention. He is a very rough hewn, high energy guy as we saw in several introductions and spontaneous communications. But when he gave his primary keynote speech, he reverted to the teleprompter, and his energy seemed to be sucked from him – he just flattened out.

Senator Jim Demint – Knew his message and delivered it well, no notes. Conversational but not casual.

Senator Mitch McConnell – Minority leader was OK, comfortable, but the teleprompter also made him static. Lost emphasis.

Congresswoman Michelle Bachman – One of the best users of the teleprompter and OK. But have seen her better in her stump speech, coming from the heart.

Congressman Jim Jordan – not as well known, but he will be. He had a small paper with notes, and didn’t need them. He was powerful, informal (no jacket) but focused. Strong message.

Speaker John Boehnerused teleprompter badly. Audience liked his message, including him tearing up once, but he became mechanical in reading.

Governor Rick Perry best I’ve seen him. Fiery, with notes that he didn’t use. Spoke from the heart, pauses, didn’t forget anything. Not the Rick Perry of the early debates.

In Summary: When you speak from the stage, or anytime you speak and it's important that you influence, be highly energetic. Don’t think your words will carry your message. The total communication experience will carry your message – or kill it.

3 thoughts on “Insights from a Speaking Immersion…
  1. “Don’t think because you say the words, people will get them. A speech is not about information as much as it is about the experience – the communication experience the listener has with you for the entire time of your communication.” Wish I could tweet that. So true. More than words. More than delivery. A package deal. One thing that really draws me in to a speaker is when they relax (I know that is hard) and are their authentic selves. Off the cuff remarks and all.

  2. Thanks Wendy – so I just tweeted it. (@BertDecker) Doesn’t lose too much in the translation. And appreciate your kind words and thoughts. Coming from you as a famous actress and outstanding speaker, that means a lot.
    And Chong and all who said good things about the post, we appreciate it here at Decker. Always trying to further the ball – we can learn something with every communication experience.

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