As a record-breaking number of Americans have tuned in to the presidential primary debates the last few months, plenty of candidates’ comments are falling subject to analytical scrutiny.
Under such criticism, it is important to note what the public is really evaluating. Americans form their political opinions based on the candidates’ ability to captivate the audience — their public speaking skills.
Just look at how President Barack Obama’s performance at the 2004 Democratic Convention permanently won over the party, leading to his eventual election as president in 2008.
With that said, let’s dig into a few lessons on public speaking — both good and bad — that we can draw from the recent debates.
Share a personal, emotionally-charged story
Debate watch: Former Maryland governor Martin O’Malley uses the power of story to recount a mother’s plea to respectfully refer to her son, serving in the military.
Humans are storytellers.
Even if it lasts a mere 30 seconds, sharing a real-life story is a surefire way to connect with an audience on a personal level. Stories cause listeners to contemplate the underlying point being made.
“Use stories as a powerful tool for demonstrating and bringing to life a key message,” said Sarah Lloyd-Hughes, author of “How to be Brilliant at Public Speaking.” “(Telling a story) is one of the best ways to be memorable.”
The storytelling approach is often more effective than stating an impressive quote or statistic to validate a point. Statistics deal with numbers; stories deal with people. An audience will prefer stories over data every time.
Always repeat yourself
Debate watch: In the GOP debate on September 16th, Businesswoman Carly Fiorina used repetition to emphasize that fellow candidates’ true character would be revealed “over time and under pressure.”
After a speech is given, an audience cannot recall everything that was said. The best way to combat this is by re-emphasizing the principles that really matter on several different occasions. These are the principles that the intended audience needs to take away with them.
Repetition is at its finest when speakers use specific key phrases. As they clearly present their messages and relate them to the audience, listeners will remain attentive throughout the speech.
Interject strategic pauses and talk slow
Debate watch: Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders maintains his composure as he inserts strategic pauses to emphasize the long-term consequences of war.
Because it can be difficult to master, silence is an art in public speaking that is not practiced enough. However, if properly utilized, this element will make all the difference.
Jeff Harden, celebrated writer and author at “Inc.com,” explains:
“Pause for two or three seconds and audiences assume you’ve lost your place; five seconds, they think the pause is intentional; after ten seconds, even the people texting can’t help looking up.”
Pauses in speech should be strategically planned around points of emphasis and anticipation, as this will cause the audience to consent authority and credibility to the speaker. Also, having a moment of silence will demand attentiveness from the audience and “bring them back” if they’ve zoned out. This is especially true in the case of longer speeches.
Public speaking is just as important in the PR field as it is to a presidential campaign. Because presidential debates are so highly viewed, these lessons can be applied in any public speaking setting.
What other public speaking skills can we observe from the 2016 candidates? Was there anything that was missed? Feel free to comment below.
Steve Clarke is a student at Brigham Young University and currently serves on the PRSSA board as the chapter’s vice president of public relations. He enjoys playing basketball, reading self-improvement books, and he believes in people.