July 1, 1989 is a date in my career that I will never forget. I was sworn in as an elected official for the very first time – the Deputy Mayor of my hometown, Cedar Grove. I was a 24-year-old who had just graduated law school and was three weeks from taking the bar exam—needless to say a busy time in my life.
Prior to this election, I was active in politics for a few years as a legislative aide and congressional intern and while I had witnessed many political speeches, I never really gave one before. Certainly never before a huge crowd with reporters taking notes (back when local papers covered municipal government) and cameras rolling. This day was going to be very special.
After taking the oath as Deputy Mayor, I was called upon to give my inauguration speech. I remember well the 11 pages of typed content that I had labored for days to perfect. You heard it correctly – 11 pages (single spaced)!
After thanking the voters and my family, I launched into my rather long and boring speech. I summoned my inner Churchill and tried to deliver the 4-year plan. I quoted Thomas Jefferson, Ronald Reagan, and maybe even Milli Vanilli (I really didn’t include the lip-syncing duo, but I wanted to underscore how absurd my speech was). And it was absurd. An EPIC FAIL by any measure.
The audacity to think I would READ an eleven page speech, line-for-line, and to think the suffering public was there to hear me pontificate about taxes, senior citizen rights, and environmental concerns was, and still is, downright embarrassing.
By the time I turned to page 7, I begin to sense the crowd had grown restlessness, and other than my proud parents, everyone, to a person, was glazed over and done. For a split second I thought the world was all about me; having forgotten the lessons learned growing up in a house with 7 children – it’s never about just you.
I don’t need to tell you how it ends. Most of the audience was polite and my mom said it was the best speech ever, but I knew the truth and it was a hard but valuable lesson to learn.
Question of the day, Should you read a prepared speech or should you go it without a Magna Carta written out?
Short answer: It is my opinion that only on rare occasions should you read an entire speech because sometimes subject matter or situation requires it.
By in large, you should try and connect with the audience, and you do so more readily by contemporaneously feeling out the audience and talking from the heart. Have an outline in your head. Have thoughts/points that you want to touch upon in your mind, but let the rest flow naturally. I know it sounds cliché.
I can’t tell you how many times I have witnessed politicians reading word for word a speech and sounding like it was done by a staffer with a limited sense of the moment. There is something to be said for capturing an audience while incorporating moments from the day, as opposed to reading a canned speech written 48 hours before. If you must read, remember to pick your head up and look at the crowd and modulate your voice, change the tempo — don’t be monotone.
While I’m at it, don’t be too hard on yourself because of a gaffe or spitting out a word salad. We are all prone to mistakes and people accept it, assuming you have some humbleness.
While the question of whether “to read or not to read” can’t hold a candle to Shakespeare’s “To Be or not to Be,” just remember to keep it shorter than the 29,551 words that Hamlet was.