Political speeches and political debates are two sides of the same coin. Mastering this skillset is crucial if you are to be an effective communicator and a successful politician. In recent times Barack Obama has shown the power of political rhetoric to capture and contextualize issues in an understandable way. His inauguration speech was a generation-defining piece of public speech that will be studied for many years to come. On the flip side, Donald Trump showed incredible ability in political debates, not through rigorous argument or the ability to rebut his competitors, but in the power of making a statement and then defending that position against all comers. Despite being a rank outsider at the beginning of the presidential primary race, in successive political debates, he saw off his competitors by using a mixture of soundbites, put-downs and an unshakeable belief in the correctness of his position over all others.
If you feel like a throwback, check out one of our earlier blog posts on political speeches, there is some good ones there, just click the image below.
Not everyone is going to have the soaring prose of Obama or the positive self-image of Donald Trump but there is no reason that you can’t be a very successful public speaker with the right preparation. In this piece, we will look at some of the skills needed to take to the podium for a political speech or a political debate.
Firstly, research your opposition. In the case of a political debate, you will want to understand the position of your competitors and have some sense of what they are likely to say and how they will say it. Are they defensive? Have they weaknesses in their argument? Do they have a past that can be exploited?
In terms of a solo political speech, it is still important to research the situation that you will be in and what the audience is likely to be thinking. Is it a friendly crowd? Are they expecting you to address certain topics? Can you take a line of argument that is unexpected? Is there a storytelling style that will work particularly well in this context?
Spend at least two hours on background or opposition research before writing a word of your speech.
What to do
The overall framework of your speech will be split up into topic areas. You may want to discuss a number of issues that are relevant to the audience. If you think you might discuss three topics (always a good number to work towards) then prepare five topics. That way, if you get pulled into something that isn’t part of your speech (by an audience question or by your competition) then you will likely have something prepared for it. Remember, if a topic comes up that you haven’t done any prep work on, and you are not confident on the figures, you can always move the conversation back to topics you have prepared.
Preparation of a topic means background reading, memorizing of key metrics or quotations, assembly of the text of your speech, and rigorous fact-checking on all these elements.
How to construct an argument
To construct a persuasive argument, you should follow these three rules.
Clear, concise, credible
Be clear: Clarity is key. Your message will be lost if you cannot explain it in a simple way. Avoid using convoluted language and too much political jargon, this is not a vocabulary test! Being easily understood is a sure fire way to get the audience on side. Don’t forget to structure your sentences using active verbs and positive language.
Be concise: Being concise is equally as important as clarity. We have all been to weddings where we have been bored to tears by the speeches. Your message will be lost if your audience is not engaged with what you say and your delivery should be succinct.
Be credible: The objective of any debate is to persuade your intended audience to believe in your message and for those in opposition to find it difficult to disagree with what you have to say. Use evidence and statistics to back up your arguments but make sure you do not overuse them, a common touch or storytelling approach may be more credible.
For the proposition, that increased spending on healthcare is needed.
1. Outline the core proposition. Use scripted phrases or arguments and test them for memorability.
2. Use a storytelling element, Person X in my constituency does not have access to healthcare and it is having the following impact on them.
3. Support the core proposition with two supporting arguments and include evidence backed up by a meaningful statistic. According to this expert, “.....” and evidence is there to suggest increased spending now will reduce costs in the future, etc.
4. Acknowledge the main rebuttal and state why/how you disagree. I know my opponent will say we don’t have the budget for this, but here is how we can finance it…..
5. Tidy up with a repeat of core proposition and reason why the audience should support this, ie appeal to their sense of community, they could be next, or the tax savings that will come from it.
This is so important and will really aid your nerves in advance of a speech or debate. Rehearse your speech five times before you take it out into the light. Then give it to your team and get critiqued on it. Finally, do a full dress rehearsal with your team playing the role of the moderator and your competition. This will give you an opportunity to see the weaknesses of your points or your delivery. If you have the stomach for it, have yourself filmed giving the speech and watch it back to see where you might improve!
Remember to see the speech from the point of view of someone who doesn’t know anything about the topics. Use simple speech and plenty of analogies.
How to argue effectively
The rebuttal may seem like it is the most difficult part of a debate but, if you are prepared, is exactly the opposite and is instead, an opportunity to once more, drive home your message. Before you ever begin the debate, anticipate what the opposition is likely to throw at you and prepare an answer. If, on the off chance, you are caught off guard, avoid any knee-jerk reaction. Remember this is not a slagging match and your political integrity is at stake. Use your key arguments to rebut and reaffirm your standpoint.
Use common language
Speak the way anyone can understand you.
Do not use offensive terms during your speech.
Use stories and first-person accounts to make your arguments more relatable.
The majority of your content should be understandable by anyone but it is ok to put in the academic research, quotations or statistics that might not be understood at first listen.
The ten minutes beforehand
The ten minutes you take before you go on are crucial:
Clear your head.
Re-read your notes.
Focus on your opening statements.
Do not engage with your competitors.
Have your team around you but don’t get into anything with them.
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