Nancy Buffington, a Boise speech coach, should have political candidates who need help in that skill pounding down her door in advance of next spring’s primary election.
She’s a former lecturer at Stanford, and has been coaching or teaching the concept of effective public speaking for 15 years. Someone with Buffington’s qualifications could be a difference-maker in a tight election. Yet, it’s a position that is rarely filled on a campaign staff. A speech coach ends up being an unaffordable luxury in most campaigns that are so focused on bombarding voters with issues and talking points.
That’s OK with Buffington, because she’s busy enough working with her clientele -- which includes CEOs, lawyers and other professionals looking to make more effective public presentations. Political candidates, meanwhile, generally are left to their own devices to figure out how grab the attention of an audience, do media interviews and muddle their way through debates.
A few weeks ago, I talked with a candidate who sketched out some noteworthy strengths, but admitted to some discomfort with public speaking. Buffington grimaced when I told her the story.
“It’s not an area where you want to be weak, especially if you are a political candidate,” she said. “Most people who struggle with public speaking, and political candidates are no exception, are uncomfortable in the spotlight. They care a whole lot about other people, issues and causes around them, but they are not comfortable with drawing attention to themselves. Unfortunately, as a political candidate, you need to at least appear to be comfortable in that spotlight. Your voice is a vehicle for getting something done.”
Over the years, I’ve seen candidates who were in their element debating bills in the Legislature, or throwing out “red meat” to a partisan audience. But they freeze up in settings outside the political arena and seem to go out of their way to avoid speaking to chamber of commerce organizations or Rotary clubs. I’ve seen candidates who would show up to civic meetings and take a bow during introductions, but want nothing to do with the center stage.
Not speaking, of course, probably is better than going through the same dull talking points that are delivered to Republican women, or a GOP central committee. The daily lives of those attending civic functions are not necessarily consumed by promised government budget cuts, or firebrand rhetoric about getting the federal government out of people’s lives.
“You need a different speech for a civic club – at least it had better be if you want to win,” Buffington says. “A civic club audience is looking for a person who is real, and those who can be trusted. It’s an opportunity to have a real conversation with real people.”
Candidates would do well to pay attention to what Buffington says.
I’m no authority on public speaking by any means, but I have a few thoughts that might help those who are afflicted with stage fright – short of hiring a speech coach. First, join a Toastmasters club immediately, if not sooner (in fact, it should have been done sooner). Toastmasters force people out of their comfort zone, will providing many opportunities to speak. With the help of toastmaster friends, candidates could develop a few effective “elevator” speeches, two-minute pitches and 10-minute luncheon speeches that are targeted to different audiences. And for gosh sake, they should stand up while speaking. Toastmasters, who can be brutally honest, are not shy about telling people whether their messages and mannerisms work.
“Those are good ideas,” Buffington said. “From there, they should work on self-confidence and the stories they tell about themselves. Candidates sometimes think they must be perfect with what they say, but that’s not true. What they need to do is be themselves, and be real.”
So, can candidates turn things around seven months before an election? Buffington thinks so. “It’s plenty of time for people to get better with their speaking skills.”
One of the hurdles is getting candidates out of their comfort zones. Buffington offers a short, and sweet, pep talk here. “Do you really want to go into politics and be comfortable?”