I’m in New York right now and have just watched a very accomplished State of the union speech by President Obama. For a President with falling approval ratings he gave a masterful performance that reminded me of why he got re-elected in 2012. His speech was very well written, full of passion, personal stories and strong leadership rhetoric.
Anyway…this blog is not about him but the Republican rebuttal, which every year becomes more and more bizarre and poorly stage-managed. Stagecraft matters and it doesn’t appear that the communication people advising the rebuttal speakers had spent enough time with their clients and if they did there was not enough work aimed at connecting their client with their audience. Bobby Jindal started the rot with a very self conscious performance back in 2009 (Happy Mardi Gras!!!), Michelle Bachman famously delivered the Tea Party rebuttal into the wrong camera and Marco Rubio ran out of all moisture during his speech when he ended up wrestling his own tongue. Tonight’s rising star was Rep Kathy McMorris Rogers (the highest ranking female republican in the house) and it did not start well. The problem lay with her contrived delivery. She was trying to be warm and approachable but her facial expressions were too forced, her delivery too slow (and dare I say it slightly patronizing – for a while I felt like I was back in kindergarten) and there was no real rebuttal. It sadly lacked specificity and any genuine policy depth. Instead it was full of homespun stories and bland platitudes.
Don’t get me wrong, this kind of speech is very difficult to pull off but here we have another example of someone who did not get the coaching necessary to be authentic. And that is the most important character trait; authenticity! This may sound slightly counterintuitive but authenticity can be learned. It is a skill that comes about through a deep sense of comfort with who you are and what your values are. I wonder when she was given the nod to deliver the speech, and I wonder when she started to work on her delivery?
Some comedian once said that politics is “Hollywood for ugly people”. There is some truth in that. But unlike actors, a lot of politicians simply don’t understand that their communication skills matter more than any actors. Why? Because actors can go for another take! President Obama, like presidents Clinton and Reagan before him, is successful because he is able to connect with his audience. The Republicans had 3 other rebuttals tonight (which at the time of writing I haven’t seen) but I hope for the sake of robust debate that they up their game in the future!