6 tips for writing a powerful political campaign speech

Meredith Thatcher | September 13, 2016

What makes a great campaign speech? As it turns out, the same attributes as a document written in plain language. The most effective speeches are those that use clear language in a series of short statements, and make the speaker’s points with conviction. Here are six tips to creating an effective campaign speech.

1. Get potential voters on side

On a ‘whistle-stop’ tour of villages, towns, cities, counties, territories and states, getting as many potential voters on board in as short a time as possible is critical.

Build rapport from the start. Know about the area you’re visiting and the issues that matter to the residents who live there. Comment on those issues to bridge the gap from outsider to local. Tell a story that they can relate to instead of just spouting statistics. Your audience needs context. If you connect with them, they’ll be prepared to hear what you have to say. To get their vote, you need them on your side.

In the 2016 US Presidential election campaign, Hillary Clinton tried to get the supporters of fellow candidate Bernie Sanders on side after he dropped out of the race. Clinton stated:

And to all of your [Sanders’] supporters here and around the country, I want you to know I’ve heard you. Your cause is our cause. Our country needs your ideas, energy and passion. That is the only way we can turn our progressive platform into real change for America. We wrote it together, now let’s go out and make it happen together!

2. Get your message out fast

We live in a world of distraction. People retain very little, so get your message out fast. You want a sound bite that will capture the attention of potential voters. Keep your statement short and connected to a core theme. Then weave that theme through four to five key messages to take your audience on a memorable journey.

3. Give equal measure to empathy, warmth, and authority

Know how many people are likely to attend the event where you’re giving your speech. Remember to welcome your audience and thank them for turning up. Then deliver your comments so that each person feels like you’re having a fireside chat with them.

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A conversation is much better than a lecture, but don’t be too spontaneous. Get your timing right. Only tell a joke if you know everyone listening will get it, as no one likes being left out. And some events will be inappropriate for jokes.

The hard part is empathising with the concerns of potential voters while commanding authority. Remember to smile, and not just for the cameras. But also remember that some people view a show of emotion as a strength; others view it as a weakness. Exude confidence to assure them that you can lead and make decisions that deliver tangible benefits for them.

People may say they want to vote for someone they can talk to when what they really want is someone who can solve problems and make tough calls in any situation. So, above all, show your audience that you can do the job.

At the 2016 Republican National Convention, Donald Trump put his key message first and then tried to achieve a balance between warmth and authority. Trump stated:

U.S.A! U.S.A! U.S.A! Together, we will lead our party back to the White House, and we will lead our country back to safety, prosperity, and peace. We will be a country of generosity and warmth. But we will also be a country of law and order.

4. Stay in control and be confident

Your speech may start on the page, but you deliver it orally. Write as you will speak. Don’t waffle or include unfocused comments. Don’t get caught out using a voice that’s not your own. The audience will know immediately. Don’t be hesitant. The audience will know if you’re holding back and wonder why.

Only ask a question if you already know the answer. Use the problem–solution format throughout your speech. State the problem and provide an achievable solution. Make your messages unambigous and clear. See how your audience reacts, and respond accordingly.

In the end, leave your audience in no doubt about what you’re saying, why you’re saying it, and what they should do with your information. After all, you want their next step to be to vote for you.

5. Use repetition to best effect

Repeated messages stick. At the end, draw out your key themes and briefly repeat what you’ve said. Layer each message to build momentum to your final point. Make that point important enough that the audience will want to discuss it. This is another appropriate place for a sound bite. You need your name to stay at the top of the voters’ list of choices.

Former US President Barack Obama used repetitive phrases. Sometimes he ends a sentence in a way that makes people wonder what’s coming next. He makes a statement, pauses, and adds, ‘but that’s not what makes us…’ This makes people listen and helps to reinforce the point to come.

Obama has also used ‘I’ve seen it…’ to open statements. This shows he understands the concerns of the people — that he is one of them.

6. Take inspiration from the great orators

One of the best political speeches to incorporate the previous five elements was Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s first inaugural address to a country in the midst of the Great Depression. His 3 March 1933 speech points to the hard decisions that lie ahead. But it also reassures that a positive attitude and optimism about the future will see the country through the tough times.

The speech also notes that the people’s support and commitment to work together is an integral part of this journey. Roosevelt’s speech reads in part:

This is preeminently the time to speak the truth, the whole truth, frankly and boldly. Nor do we shrink from honestly facing conditions in our country today. This great nation will endure as it has endured, will revive and will prosper. So, first of all, let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself — nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance. In every dark hour of our national life, a leadership of frankness and vigor has met with that understanding and support of the people themselves which is essential to victory. I am convinced that you will again give that support to leadership in these critical days.

The speech is not only memorable — it has stood the test of time. It’s as relevant today as when first uttered more than 70 years ago.

Image, President Roosevelt.

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(Last updated: 19 October 2023)

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