stay on message

have a defining theme in your speech -- and make
sure everything you say can be traced back to it

Candidates for local office often treat their campaign speech as a job interview. Their stump speech is an explanation of their resume over the course of 40 minutes. But voters aren't inspired by resumes. They're not moved to vote for a candidate based on their resume. Here's how to put together a campaign speech. 

Your stump speech should expand on a single sentence: the purpose of your candidacy. Your message. For Bill Clinton in 1996, that was "building a bridge to the 21st century." For Reagan in 1984 it was "it's morning again in America."


Here's an example from Marco Rubio, who does a great job of focusing a speech on his message. His theme is "A new American century." He explains that America is a land of opportunity, but it needs new political leaders with new ideas to maximize that opportunity. So the focus of his message is this, and if you watch the speech you'll note that nearly everything in it can be traced back to this message: We are entering a new American century - one full of opportunity - and we need new political leaders for this new era. 

0:16 - The first sentence of his speech mentions "the future of our country" - this campaign is about the future, not the past. Don't overlook that. It's important to get into the theme right away.
And in the next sentence, Rubio talks about America as the land of opportunity. 
0:45 - Here Rubio tells a story to make his point. When voters think back on the speech, the stories are what they remember. Including a story about opportunity ensures voters will remember Rubio's point.
1:54 - Rubio defines the American dream, which is one of opportunity, through the story of his family.
3:07 - Now Rubio defines the problem today: that American dream is slipping away. Too many don't believe that dream still exists. That's a problem we need to fix. He sums it up with this line: "while our people and our economy are pushing the boundaries of the 21st century, too many of our leaders and their ideas are stuck in the 20th century." Notice this line gets an applause. The audience picks up on what Rubio wants them to, the contrast he's drawing with Hillary Clinton. Rubio spends about two minutes drawing this contrast. 
5:21 - Rubio lays out a challenge for American voters, and puts it in historical context. He points out that what needs to be done today has been done before. At the turn of the 20th century, Americans led the industrial revolution. "Now the time has come for our generation to lead the way to a new American century." But that can't just be empty rhetoric, there has to be logic to it. Next Rubio lays out a number of policy proposals that will lead to a new American century. He caps the proposals by declaring his candidacy for President.
10:50 - "In many countries, the highest office in the land is reserved for the rich and the powerful. But I live in an exceptional country. I live in an exceptional country where even the son of a bartender and a maid can have the same dreams." Rubio contrasts himself with Clinton (rich & powerful) and embraces the idea of opportunity in America. He then finishes with a story about his parents, and how their hard work led to his ability to run for President of the United States. A story that embodies the American dream, American opportunity.

speech tips


make a logical argument

This speech lays out the logic for a candidacy very well. Cefaratti begins with a story about schools, which connects with voters in the room. They understand the story and can connect to it. It shows why something different needs to be done.

Cefaratti then goes on to tick off a number of issues that clearly need to be addressed. Notice as he discusses each one, he comes from the "voter" persecutive. He addresses the issues not from the perspective of an elected official talking down to the voters, but as "one of us."

A great campaign speech makes the argument for your candidacy not because it has flowery rhetoric, but because it's logical. Peggy Noonan, speechwriter for Ronald Reagan, says "the most moving thing in a speech is its logic." She's right - it's not sentiment, it's that the speech makes sense to people. 

0:40 - Cefaratti begins with a story about schools. Stories makes policies understandable. 
1:05 - Cefaratti begins to make the logic for his argument, using a great statistic re: schools. 
2:20 - Note how Cefaratti glances at his notes. A pause is fine, even if it feels awkward. He does it again at 5:35. 
7:45 - "I call on the residents to..." Here Cefaratti includes the voters in his campaign. It is a joint campaign to change Alexandria. It's not just about him. 

RIGHT: This speech does not make a logical argument. It uses a lot of high-flying rhetoric, but it doesn't connect well for a city council campaign. Candidates for the top offices in the country - like Senate and President - might be able to get away with rhetoric like "Lowell is the root and you are the branches," but even they need to connect that phrase to a logical argument for their candidacy. Be careful when writing your stump speech. Imagine you're talking to the audience in a small room, not staring out across a sea of thousands of cheering supporters. 

Get to the point quickly

The candidate here spends two minutes thanking people in the room. It's a nice gesture, but after a few quick "thank you's," candidates ought to get on with the speech. The beginning of a speech sets the tone. You don't want the audience wondering "how long is this going to go?" from the beginning.

Also, don't use your campaign speech to fill the 40 minutes allotted to you by the group you're speaking to. Campaign speeches don't need to be longer than 20 minutes. If you need to fill 40 minutes to fit the schedule of the group you're speaking to, talk for 20 and then take questions. 




Take the time to write out your speech. You want to be familiar with the content, and you want to make sure you're making a logical argument for your candidacy. It's easier to memorize the flow of the argument while writing it out, because you'll more easily notice if you get off track. 


If you spend a few minutes watching this video, you'll see why you don't want to read a speech. The candidate looks comfortable. He looks like the kind of guy who could easily connect with his audience. But he's not making eye contact with them. They're watching him, and he's staring down at a sheet of paper.






RIGHT: The candidate here -- James Woulfe -- obviously knows his speech well. He has the sheet of paper in his hand as a reference, and does a good job of making eye contact. But the problem is he has it rehearsed too well. The speech comes across like it is written (which is clearly is). In a setting like a local restaurant, the candidate needs to be better connected. It's a very different feel than a large ballroom with a podium, and the candidate should treat it as such. In this situation, particularly with a 3 minute speech, I recommend memorizing a few stories and practicing how you will give the speech in front of an audience until it feels natural instead of rehearsed. 

talk about a shared vision

Campbell begins her speech by talking about her story (1:50 mark), which is clearly a shared story by many in the community. She had a difficult childhood and wants voters who have the same story to know she understands what they're experiencing. 

She then ties that shared story to a call for specific policies that will help her community, and she makes an excellent transition from "story" to "policies" (6:05). 

She then talks broadly about what matters to the community (6:23): good schools, great mentors, small business, good jobs and vibrant churches. While talking about these issues briefly, she again reminds voters that "we have a shared vision for our community," tying herself to the voters in a common cause. 

After she discusses broad, big picture ideas, Campbell turns them into three specific proposals. It's always good to have some specifics so voters know you have seriously thought through your agenda, and three items is a good number to stick to. Finally, at 12:20, she begins to close and asks for support. Always remember to make "the ask." Voters should know they're leaving with a specific task to help you win, even if it's just voting for you. 

...and don't be afraid to focus on the "mundane"

Notice how Marty Mauk, running for Des Moines (Iowa) city council focuses on the simplest of activities the city can help residents with (0:35). He talks about keeping residents safe and fixing pot holes. And he introduces those issues by asking, "what are the things people expect their city government to do?" It's easy to overlook what he does here, because it's so basic. There is no high flying rhetoric - just simple solutions to the activities people expect their city government to be good at. Don't underestimate how much mileage you can get out of making your campaign message simple. 

avoid talking about process

Campaigning may be new to you. It is a unique and an odd process. If you like to learn new things, the process may fascinate you. It doesn't fascinate voters. This candidate takes the little time he has to talk to voters, and talks about the yard sign process and what he needs endorsements on his website for. Avoid that. Use the time supporters give you to talk about why you're running for office. One caveat -- at the end of your speech, you should make an ask. Ask for donations, or yard sign locations, or endorsement. And it's helpful to briefly explain why those things matter. But don't let conversation about the process dominate the talk. 



I blog regularly here about campaign speeches. I also highly recommend Peggy Noonan's "On Speaking Well." You can find the book on Amazon here.