Nuts & Bolts: Inside a Democratic marketing campaign—avoiding the jitters

It’s another Sunday, so for those who tune in, welcome to a diary discussing the Nuts & Bolts of a Democratic campaign. If you’ve missed out, you can catch up any time: Just visit our group or follow the Nuts & Bolts Guide. For years I’ve built this guide around questions that get submitted, hoping to help small candidates field questions. I’ve been grateful to so many campaign managers, field directors, communication directors, and volunteers for sharing their experience, which has continued to be a big part of the story presented every week in this series.

I tell people in a past life one of the things I enjoyed most was public speaking. From high school speech and debate to college American Forensic Association National Individual Events Tournaments (AFA-NIET), speech has always been something that I find easy. For a lot of candidates, though, public speaking can be very difficult. You can have difficulty in a public forum, a debate, at a door. In the era of Zoom meetings and town halls, though, the ability to speak effectively can make a big difference in your campaign. I can’t tell you what to say, but this week, we’re going to talk about how a candidate can make the way they speak more effective.

The absolute basics

Some advice for public speaking is so basic that when people hear it they say “well, I figured that.” Understanding the absolute basics, though, and practicing them can make you a much more effective speaker by helping you feel more confident.

Take care of any bodily issue. If you need to use the bathroom, have a drink of water, or adjust your appearance, do it several minutes before you speak to allow yourself to feel comfortable that those tasks are completed before you move on. Do not drink carbonated beverages before speaking to an audience.
Don’t slouch. When you slouch or slump, you will have a harder time projecting your voice. No format, digital or in-person, can change the fact that a slumped presentation will read to the room differently than a candidate who stands upright and delivers their point.
Dress appropriately. If you are running for any office, dress the role. Running for office is a job interview, and voters are the employer. You would not go to a job interview dressed poorly. Small details matter. Clean your glasses. Brush your teeth. Use a lint roller on your shirt. Wear clean clothes.
Do some vocal warmups. Your mouth, like any part of your body, needs exercise to perform at its best. Do a few and make sure you are ready before you speak to an audience.

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Have someone that you trust in the audience to help you feel comfortable.
Use gestures. Do not be stiff. Arm gestures and some movement (don’t pace, however) let you look and feel engaged and call attention to key points you are making.

Memorization or bullet points?

If you’ve done a lot of public speaking, you know there are different kinds. You can speak impromptu or extemporaneously, where your material happens in the moment. This means that you function based on bullet points and responses. Alternatively, you may have moments you speak persuasively. The persuasive speech is your stump speech, and is in a nearly perfectly memorized format. I often tell candidates to try to keep their memorized stump in a set of formats: a two-minute, a three-minute, and a five-minute. Do not, in almost any case, have a speech prepped that’s more than five minutes. No one wants to listen to you that long before they start to lose the ability to pay attention. You want a transition period that allows them to speak to you directly.

In order to be an effective speaker as a candidate, you have to focus on both of these formats. It is often easier to get familiar with a stump speech, a memorized two-minute or three-minute speech that you can deliver with comfort. Because they are memorized, many find this format to be less stressful and they feel more confident delivering a memorized speech.

In order to build that same confidence in an impromptu format, you have to find a speaking style that you’re comfortable with. Some speakers find that adding some levity to their speech makes it easier for them to be off the cuff. Other speakers want facts and figures they can drop in to bridge between points and build their confidence. Work with the people around you and develop a style that lets you feel in control.

Be calm

My final piece of advice on public speaking is simple: Be calm. People who struggle with public speaking cite as one of their top reasons that they are anxious, nervous, or in fear of speaking in front of a crowd. Finding calm when you’re nervous can be tough. How can you become calm to make your public speaking more effective?

Following some of the advice above about preparedness certainly helps. The last component is one I always recommend: Rest. Find a way to put some rest into your schedule before any major speaking event, which can help your body feel rested and ready rather than tired and stressed.

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