Presentations: John Edwards Communications Turnaround: Politics
Author/speaker Harvey Mackay (Swim with the Sharks) says it is not “practice makes perfect,” but “perfect practice makes perfect.” If you want to develop a skill then execute that precise skill over and over to get better. To wit: North Carolina U-S Senator and presidential candidate John Edwards’ communications skills.
Almost one year ago in this column I criticized Edwards for appearing over-coached, programmed, and rehearsed. NY Times and Washington Post columnists said much the same. What a difference 12 months make. He is now communicating much better and his surprising second-place showing in the Iowa Caucus January 19 surely reflects that. Here’s what I like:
He answers questions briefly – They last 10-15 seconds and are succinct. When asked if the Republican Party should talk about values (family, same sex marriages, etc.) Edwards said, “It will be a mistake to focus on these values issues if I am the candidate because this is an area that I can beat George Bush like a drum.”
He answers questions specifically – Political interrogators used to have a hard time pinning down Edwards. He was circumspect, holding back. Now he often has a direct answer. When asked which southern states he could win he said, “I think the states that I have a great shot and would win are North Carolina, Arkansas. I think we have a very good shot in Louisiana. I think Georgia we have a shot at. We should win West Virginia. I think Tennessee we have a shot at.” He used to hedge.
He judiciously steers questions – When appropriate, he can still drive a question in another direction. When asked if he supports same-sex marriages, he said, “I do not support that, but I do support an array of measures to protect partnership benefits… but if I could just slightly shift what you just asked about, I think what the President ought to be concentrating his energy on are things like jobs, healthcare. I mean if he has a healthcare plan I’ve never heard it.”
He concentrates on benefits to the audience rather than shots at opponents. I have always been intrigued why attack strategies seldom work in corporate PR but often do in politics. (A Dick Gephardt ad attacking Howard Dean in Iowa caused Dean to drop in the polls, but may have backfired on Gephardt himself at the same time.) Attacks especially puzzle me when successful sales strategies in business usually center on offering benefits to prospective clients. I like Edwards’ lack of sniping at fellow candidates while offering his solutions (benefits) for problems.
He talks to the audience. Watch an Edwards stump speech and count the number of times he says “you.” Other candidates do this too. I like the way he talks about your challenges, your needs, your problems; says, “I need your help,” and adds, “I believe in you.” This is good audience bonding. It is not all about him.
He is more spontaneous. Last year he couldn’t answer an off the wall personal question from ABC’s George Stephanopoulos, but now on the stump he points to someone carrying a sign saying Edwards vs. Bush and self-deprecatingly adlibs, “I dream about it every night.”
He knows when to say “I don’t know.” When asked why candidate Dean seemed to be sliding in popularity, he said, “It feels that way… (but) I don’t really know.”
Edwards is doing something particularly shrewd. In speeches he brings up negative questions said about him and then answers them. It’s a clever way to try to offset negative thoughts the audience may hold but not mention. For example, he said, “Some people say, ‘You don’t have the experience to be President.’” He then said, “Look what experience has gotten you” and talked about his years winning court battles as an attorney and Washington battles as a Senator.
John Edwards still has far to travel, but he’s come a long way as a communicator. He told an audience, “I have learned and grown so much being here in Iowa.” He has also learned and grown in the campaign trenches while demonstrating that Harvey Mackay may be right.