The Sum of All Fears

A tech entrepreneur-turned-politician delivered his announcement speech. He bombed. For 85 minutes. What can be learned?

For a now-defunct newsletter for speechwriters, I once reported a column called “Speechwriters’ Worst Nightmares.”

It was the easiest journalistic assignment imaginable. You just went down the subscriber list, called a speechwriter at random, asked him or her about something disastrous that had happened at work, and you wrote down what the speechwriter said. No speechwriter was ever stumped for a professional nightmare. The only problem was identifying the worst of many.

Public speaking is dangerous work.

But the sum of all fears happened last weekend at an event where an aspiring Chicago politician announced his candidacy.

From the Chicago Tribune’s report:

By the end of his meandering 85 minutes on stage, [the 30-year-old] had apologized to the 200 supporters gathered in Shapiro Ballroom in West Town for being unprepared for the moment. He declared he had “bombed this speech.”

“I’m about to be the most embarrassed human being in Chicago,” he said.

A few in the crowd tried to comfort the budding candidate by shouting, “No!”

But after [he] had been on stage for an hour repeating phrases about “getting real” and “building trust,” and saying he was “scared” and “vulnerable,” a handful of attendees got up from the chairs encircling the stage and left. He acknowledged that some people walking out made him even more nervous. Still, he went on. …

There were consecutive deep breaths. There was a period of nearly 30 seconds without a word. He never specified a single plank of his platform. He concluded by asking the audience to see that his “flailing” was a sign of being “real.”

“Today is day one,” he said in conclusion, “and it is the roughest day one of any political candidate of all time. It’s gotta be. Let’s elect a vulnerable mayor who is 30 years old, who is figuring out everything as he goes, who is bringing a lot of people along with him … who’s going to find a way to pull through a struggling moment.”

Obviously you can follow the link and get the young man’s name, but I’m not listing it here because I don’t want to the incident to linger with him on Google.

I have had moments like that myself. I was a very young writer and thought that public speaking was supposed to come to writers naturally. Did Kurt Vonnegut practice his public speaking? I didn’t think so. I didn’t want to think so, anyway.

But after a few humiliations—I remember one at an obscure local association luncheon and another in front of a corporate communication department—I learned: If you wanted to not risk such a situation, you had to rehearse a lot. Which is OK, because you actually do have the time to do it even though you think you don’t. If you want to look spontaneous—and go without a script—you have to rehearse much more. Unless you are somehow kissed with the magic blarney.

And we now know, son, you are not.

Get your message organized—and get help with that if you need to. And then rehearse it so many times that by the time you deliver it it feels like a stump speech and you’re almost sick of delivering it. And when you give it in front of a live audience for the first time, no one will know how much time you spent. They’ll only hear your message and see your confidence.

We like our leaders real, it’s true. But they have to prove they’re leaders, first. —DM

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