Mitt Romney’s rhetoric has made headlines again this week because of recently released videos of remarks that he made at a private fundraising event several months ago. The speech and the reaction to it reveal how important it is to understand your audience.
Effective verbal persuasion isn’t only a matter of the speaker communicating. It’s also about the experience of the audience — what the audience hears, how it reacts, and the relationship between speaker and listener. (If you are interested in this idea, take a look at Chaim Perelman’s book, “The New Rhetoric.”) When you write a speech, you need to consider two things about your audience: (1) how to connect with them, but also (2) what their perspectives might be, including whether a single audience might encompass a variety of perspectives.
Connecting With the Audience (Seeking Communion)
Connecting with an audience means finding common ground with them. To be persuasive, you have to seek communion with your listeners. Mitt Romney clearly had this in mind when he spoke at his fundraising event. He used a frank tone, as if he were leveling with insiders to his campaign, giving them the straight story about his strategy and his plans. That makes sense — the audience was comprised primarily of people who are financing his race, and in exchange for their contributions, they wanted to feel like they were getting a behind-the-scenes look at the candidate. You can see their positive reaction to him in the colloquy. One exclaimed, “I’m mesmerized.” Another told him, “Individuals in this room obviously are your supporters … We want you. What do we do? Just tell us how we can help.” Many people attending the event had a positive reaction to Romney’s remarks, because the speech was designed to appeal to that audience.
Confronting the Hydra-Headed Audience
The problem that Romney is wrestling with this week, though, is that his audience is no longer the one he thought it was. It turns out that someone at the event videotaped his remarks, and now the speech is playing before a broad, national audience.
Even before the tape was released, though, it was likely that Romney’s audience was not as single-minded as he thought. For example, when you watch the video of his remarks, you can see waiters serving a meal. They were part of the audience. What do you think they thought about this part of the speech?
My dad, as you probably know, was the governor of Michigan and was the head of a car company. But he was born in Mexico, and, uh, had he been born of, uh, Mexican parents, I’d have a better shot at winning this.
Or this part?
There are 47 percent of the people who will vote for the president no matter what. There are 47 percent who are with him, who are dependent upon government, who believe that they are victims, who believe that government has a responsibility to care for them, who believe that they are entitled to health care, to food, to housing, to you-name-it. That that’s an entitlement and government should give it to them. And they will vote for this president no matter what. . . .These are people who pay no income tax; 47 percent of Americans pay no income tax. So our message of low taxes doesn’t connect. He’ll be out there talking about tax cuts for the rich. I mean, that’s what they sell every four years. And so my job is not to worry about those people. I’ll never convince them they should take personal responsibility and care for their lives. What I have to do is convince the 5 to 10 percent in the center, that are independents, that are thoughtful, that look at voting one way or the other depending upon, in some cases, emotion, whether they like the guy or not, what he looks like.
The waiters were part of the audience. The person surreptitiously videotaping the event was also part of the audience. There may have been others in the room who would disagree with the description of people who pay no income tax as entitled victims, or who might flinch at the Mexico quip. Even if the tape had not been leaked, there still were a multiplicity of views in that room — a “hydra-headed audience.”
When you are facing a hydra-headed audience, why risk alienating some part of it? Romney could make the same points without the disparaging undertone. For example, he could have said, “My dad was the head of a car company. That gave me a lot of financial advantages growing up. Ironically, those same advantages are disadvantaging me now, because it makes people think I don’t understand their situation. But I do.”
He could have explained his election strategy and his view about entitlement reform like this: ”There are some people who will vote for the president no matter what, just like there are some voters who we know are likely to vote for me no matter what. What I have to do is convince the 5 to 10 percent in the center, the thoughtful independents. It’s really a question about direction for the country: Do you believe in a government-centered society that provides more and more benefits? Or do you believe instead in a free-enterprise society where people are able to pursue their dreams?”
When you speak, don’t assume that everyone in the audience is exactly like you. It can be a risky move to reach for the inside joke, the disparaging tone, the off-color comment, because you simply don’t know what your listeners are actually thinking. You can still seek communion with them by giving them information about your campaign strategy or by telling them personal stories, without venturing into the potentially off-putting remarks.
This caution is even more necessary if you are running for president — you simply never know who is listening. In a world of cheap, tiny cameras and YouTube, you are never actually “unplugged.” Those tapes leaked, and you can’t un-leak them. One of Romney’s main campaign themes has been the importance of creating jobs for poor people who need them. It’s going to be tough for him to strike that theme convincingly now that we’ve heard him describe those same people as “victims, who believe that government has a responsibility to care for them, who believe that they are entitled to health care, to food, to housing, to you-name-it…. And so my job is not to worry about those people. I’ll never convince them they should take personal responsibility and care for their lives.”
The fact that the remark was made in a private setting, with a frank tone, makes it more memorable, and is likely to make listeners think that it’s closer to the speaker’s real beliefs than his prepared remarks are.
Romney is standing by the substance of his remarks, but has admitted that they were “not elegantly stated.” He is correct in that assessment. The remarks hurt him because they hit squarely on two of the problems that we identified on Romney’s campaign scorecard (which you can read here) — he has to stop sounding like an unconnected patrician who doesn’t care about people who are not like him, and he has to overcome the etch-a-sketch problem, the perception that he will change positions depending on whom he is addressing.