More is less.
In previous conventions, we estimated that, if we were lucky, speakers could emit about 125 words per minute. After the first speeches were recorded, we realized that our arithmetic was far from accurate. Now, talking directly to camera with no pauses for laughter or applause, they were surpassing 150, 160, even 170 words per minute. So even though most spoke for only a few minutes, they had more words to make their point.
We knew that most speeches couldn’t run for more than a few minutes. Speakers have an incredibly limited amount of time to capture an audience. But now they wouldn’t be competing with the low murmur of conversation in a convention hall; they’d be competing with life: second and third screens, rowdy children, noisy neighbors. In one of our rehearsals, when her speech was running a few seconds long, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) observed with a smile, “Usually the Speaker gets to speak for as long as she wants.” She then cut several phrases and an extraneous sentence — and landed her speech at exactly four minutes. The average speech at the convention was 2 1/2 minutes long. Only four speakers had more than 10 minutes. Only Joe Biden had more than 20, and his speech was still the shortest acceptance speech at a Democratic National Convention since 1984.
Some cuts were easier this time around. In a convention hall or arena, there are tools that allow a speaker to “check in” with an audience. The rhetorical technique of call-and-response engages an audience, and forces them to pay attention, because they need to be responding. Al Gore in 1992 fired up the convention crowd with a repeated refrain of “It is time for them to go.” While the same message may have worked this year, the same delivery wouldn’t. Similarly, the rhetorical technique of litany, such as ending each paragraph with “Yes, we can,” provides a rhythm that draws an audience in, and keeps it engaged. At least for now, those arrows have been removed from a speaker’s quiver.
Other cuts were a little tougher, given both precedents and personalities. Commentators wondered how the normally loquacious Bill Clinton held his remarks to five minutes. But the real question is: Was the impact of his speech diminished or deepened by that time limit?
As writers, we know it’s painful not to have the time to unspool a story or let an anecdote breathe. But the strictures enforced a useful discipline. We normally tell speakers: “Figure out the headline you would want to read in the story about this speech, and then write to that.” Now, we’re going to start saying, “Figure out the headline you’d like to see in the story about this speech, and deliver it.”
Lose the lectern and let the setting speak
During conventions past, every single speech was delivered behind the same lectern. But this time, “podium speeches” had to be handled differently — and, in most cases, that barrier between speaker and listener was removed. TED Talks have long dispensed with the lectern, but the U.S. Senate has not, so the comfort level of some speakers varied.
Podiums and lecterns achieve physically what we hope they will do metaphorically: elevate the speaker and vest him or her with authority. But they also place a barrier between the speaker and the audience. President Barack Obama, in his searing speech Wednesday night, gave a look at what that new normal could look like for people in positions of power: a low lectern that can be seen in the beginning, with a camera that pans in to move from formality to intimacy. (Biden’s staging was similar to Obama’s.)
When we prepare clients for debates or television interviews, we always remind them that the way in which they listen and react says a lot even when they’re not saying anything. Today, we’d add that the setting matters, too. (Room Rater would agree.)
Former Ohio governor John Kasich, a Republican, memorably spoke at a crossroads, which conveyed its own message. Obama at the Museum of the American Revolution, Jill Biden in the empty classroom in which she once taught, former South Bend, Ind., mayor Pete Buttigieg at the place where he married his husband, and Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto (D-Nev.) at a kitchen table, symbolizing the place from which many Americans will vote in the fall. Take a look at Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s clever placement of children’s blocks behind her as she spoke from an early childhood center in Massachusetts. She didn’t speak the words “Black Lives Matter,” but she very much said them.
It’s the conversation, stupid.
In his definitive tome on great speeches and speechifying, former Richard Nixon speechwriter William Safire wrote that: “One-on-one sells, one-on-a-million thrills.”
Despite some technical wizardry in providing reaction shots, teleconferences just can’t re-create the electricity of a widely attended event. For months, we’ve seen this in concerts and sports, and now we’ve seen it in our convention.
This makes the thrill harder, but it also makes the sell easier. Michelle Obama (who delivered one of the many speeches we didn’t write) provided a master class in the genre Monday night. She didn’t speak to 20 million television viewers; she spoke to one viewer in an intimate conversation that happened to take place 20 million times.
The oldest technology still rules: story.
As neuroscientist Antonio Damasio once put it, humans are feeling machines that think, not thinking machines that feel. And the surest way to invoke feelings is to tell a story.
We have found over the years that the most powerful convention moments are often the smaller ones: everyday people telling their stories. Was there anything more moving than 11-year-old Estella Juarez simply reading a letter to President Trump about her mother’s deportation? Or Brayden Harrington telling the world of how Joe Biden helped him find his voice. Or when Kristin Urquiza talked about how her father’s only preexisting condition was trusting Trump (adapted from an essay she wrote in these pages)?
Research shows that the most effective ways to get someone to change their mind is to tell them a story of someone similar to them who has made a similar journey, creating a “permission structure” for them to do the same. That’s why the convention featured Republicans discussing how they came to repudiate Trump and embrace Biden.
Then there was one standout moment of the convention: the roll call. Here, the virtual outmatched the traditional. People loved seeing the states, rather than hearing them described, as they had been at previous conventions. Part of that, of course, is because it’s fun to take a virtual trip when travel is verboten. But another part is that each of the 57 stops were, individually and collectively, a story about our country.
That’s what conventions, done well, should be: hundreds of individual stories that come together to form a larger story about who we are and where we’re going. How we stage and deliver them may change, but how that story ends is still up to us.