The two most notable speeches during the first day of the Republican National Convention came from Ann Romney, the candidate’s wife, and from Chris Christie, the governor of New Jersey and the keynote speaker of the convention. Despite Gov. Christie’s ease at the podium and reputation as a terrific speaker, Ann Romney — neither a politician nor a professional orator — outshone him. Here’s how:
Positive message. Ann Romney’s speech focused on the good that she believes her husband can do for the country, culminating in a declaration that, “This man will not fail.” Her theme of “love” was upbeat and positive. If you can find a positive way to frame your message — building your side up rather than tearing the other side down — then audience members, particularly those who are not yet convinced but are persuadable, are more likely to listen to you.
Conviction. Ann Romney’s declaration that, “This man will not fail” was memorable because you could tell that she believes it to be true. You are more credible as a speaker if you are emotionally connected to your message and can convey enthusiasm about it.
Poise. Even though Ann Romney is not a professional speaker, she displayed a remarkable amount of poise throughout the speech. She paused when the audience cheered, rather than letting it unsettle her. She smiled at the enthusiasm of the crowd, enjoying their applause. If you can relax as you make a speech and let a little of your personality come through, people are more likely to take you seriously.
There are three small suggestions that we might make to a speaker in Ann Romney’s position:
Don’t smile all the time. Ann Romney’s ability to smile at the audience generally made her likeable and approachable. But there were other odd moments where she smiled and even, on occasion, squealed, which took away from her credibility. For example, near the beginning of the speech, she painted this somber picture:
I have been all across this country and I know a lot of you guys. And I have seen and heard stories of how hard it is to get ahead now. You know what? I have heard your voices. They have said to me, I am running in place and we just cannot get ahead.
The delivery of that moment was strange, though, because she burst into a huge smile and laugh when she said, “I know a lot of you guys!” as if she were saying hi to a friend. She then quickly had to eliminate the smile and assume a serious tone for the following sentences, which made the moment more awkward than it should have been. You can see a similar girlishness as she talks about meeting Mitt at a school dance; she adopts a smiling, submissive body language that is at odds with the confidence she projects at the end of the speech.
Find communion with your audience. A basic truism of verbal persuasion is that an audience is more likely to believe you if you can find common ground. Ann Romney tries to do this by reaching out to the women in the crowd, saying to them knowingly,
If you listen carefully, you’ll hear the women sighing a little bit more than the men. It’s how it is, isn’t it? It’s the moms who have always had to work a little harder to make everything right. It’s the moms of this nation, single, married, widowed, who really hold the country together. We’re the mothers. We’re the wives. We’re the grandmothers. We’re the big sisters. We’re the little sisters and we are the daughters. You know it’s true, don’t you? I love you, women!
This attempt to connect with the women in the audience was a little too heavy-handed and clichéd to be believable, particularly the cry, “I love you, women!” Some women listening may have resisted the attempt to be lumped together with Ann Romney simply because of the commonality of gender, just as some men might have resisted the declaration that, “I am not sure if men really understand this, but I don’t think there is a woman in America who really expects her life to be easy. In our own ways, we all know better. You know what, and that’s fine. We don’t want easy.” And there are a fair number of women who might respond that it’s not fine that their lives are not easy; that, in fact, that indicates that changes are needed (like wage disparity and the lack of affordable childcare) to establish a more equitable playing field.
But Ann Romney was able to accomplish what the party needed her to accomplish. She humanized her husband, she showed that she believed in him and she charmed her listeners. You can watch the speech here:
Chris Christie, in contrast, failed to further Romney’s cause. Where Ann Romney focused her energy on bringing Mitt to life, Christie focused all his energy on himself. Here are some ways that Christie’s speech missed the mark:
Find the right theme. The occasion for this speech was the nomination of Mitt Romney as the Republican candidate for the presidency. Christie’s theme should in some way have supported that candidacy. Instead, Christie went on for 1700 out of his 2600 words without even mentioning Romney at all, focusing instead on himself. Christie spoke about: (1) his Sicilian mother (probably the most memorable part of his speech), emphasizing Christie’s own ability to make hard decisions, as his mother had; (2) his work in New Jersey; (3) the need to “speak the truth” (not a great theme for Romney, who is battling with the image that he is a flip-flopper); and (4) an us-versus-them breakdown of how Republicans and Democrats differ (a divisive theme that is unlikely to appeal to undecided moderate voters who want to see the parties work together). In a weird juxtaposition with Ann Romney’s speech, Christie turned her theme of love on its head: there are “times in your life when you have to choose between being loved and being respected. . . .[A]lways pick being respected. . . I believe we have become paralyzed by our desire to be loved.”
Taking the “bridge too far.” Another basic truism of effective advocacy: Don’t ask the audience to believe more than common sense allows. Christie’s argument about “what they believe as Democrats” asked the audience to believe that Democrats are intentionally lying to or frightening the American people in order to manipulate them. “Their plan: Whistle a happy tune while driving us off the fiscal cliff, as long as they are behind the wheel of power.” Most undecided voters are unlikely to believe that the Democrats are motivated by a nefarious purpose. Think instead of the memorable moment during John McCain’s presidential campaign in 2008 when he refused to accept a supporter’s statement that Obama was “an Arab,” replying, “No, ma’am. He’s a decent family man [and] citizen that I just happen to have disagreements with on fundamental issues and that’s what this campaign’s all about.” Christie could make his argument more persuasive by saying that Democrats and Republicans have fundamental disagreements about the purpose of government, and then explaining why he believes his party’s plan is the better plan. By demonizing the other side, Christie exaggerates his argument and damages his credibility, especially if he plans to run for the presidency himself in the future (which will require him to appeal to the middle, not just to his own party).
Grapple with arguments fairly. It would be refreshing to hear a convention speech in which a party talks frankly with its own members about mistakes the party has made and things that it could do differently in the future. NPR recently broadcast a conversation in which Republican voters talked about the economy, and in that conversation some of the participants criticized their own party’s actions. The result was that you were more likely to listen to and believe those speakers because they reflected a thoughtfulness and reasonableness that made them credible. In contrast, Chris Christie lambasted the Democrats, but then brushed over any Republican contribution to the economic crisis by saying, “It doesn’t matter how we got here. There is enough blame to go around.” He decries gridlock in Washington without admitting any action by his own party that is contributing to it. And he talks about “hard truths” while slanting the facts about New Jersey’s troubled economy, the health care law and Medicare.
Chris Christie has a kind of approachability and genuineness that makes him an appealing speaker. He can convey passion, toughness and conviction. If you were to put him up against Mitt Romney in a speechmaking contest, he would beat Romney hands-down. But this keynote address was not a particularly good speech. Chris Christie can — and should — do better.