Whenever I have the chance to watch a big league politician at work, I always try to study their communications skills in an effort to learn from the best. In a previous post, I presented what I learned watching Congresswoman Jackie Speier work a room, a pretty amazing sight, in The Introvert’s Guide to Glad-Handing.
Recently I had the chance to watch Mayor Pete in action at a gathering in Palo Alto. Political views aside , the man is a simply outstanding public speaker. In this post, I’ll share what I learned from watching him work.
- Don’t be afraid of Q&A. I’d say Pete spent 1/3rd of his time on his stump speech, and left 2/3rds to “make it a conversation.” It works. It engages the crowd. In tech, I feel like many companies – after one too many embarrassing episodes – now avoid Town Hall formats at employee All Hands meetings, Kickoffs, or User Conferences. Yes, I’ve heard of  and seen  a few disasters in my day, but we shouldn’t throw the baby out with the bathwater. Town Hall format is simply more engaging than a speech. Moreover, I’d guess that when employees observe leaders who habitually avoid Q&A, they perceive them as afraid to do so.
- Engage the person who asked the question. I’ve gotten this one wrong my whole career and it took a politician to teach me. I’ve always said “answer the question to the audience” (not the person who asked) as a way to avoid getting caught in a bad dialog , but I now realize I was wrong. If you’re a politician you want everyone’s vote, so let’s not dismiss that person/voter too quickly. Pete inserts a step – engage the person. Student: “What are you planning to do if you get bullied by another candidate?” Pete: “Well, what do you do at school when someone tries to bully you?” Student: “Well, I try to walk away, but sometimes I want to yell back.” Pete: “And you seem pretty level-headed to me.”
- Answer the question for the audience, ideally building off the engagement. Pete: “That’s it, isn’t it? You know you should walk away but you want to yell back. That’s why it’s so hard. That’s why it takes discipline. That’s why I’m thankful that during my service in the Armed Forces that I learned the difference between a real emergency and a political emergency. Instead of yelling back at the bully you need to …” Note that when he finishes, he does not look back at the questioner but instead says “next question” and looks to the audience .
- Squat down when addressing children . There were a lot of kids at the event and Pete, somewhat surprisingly, took numerous questions from them. There were two benefits of this: (a) the kids tended to ask simple clear questions (e.g., “why are you going to beat rival X”) and (b) the kids introduced a good bit of humor both in their questions and delivery (e.g., “what are the names and the sizes of your dogs?”or “when will there be a ‘girl’ president?”). I always considered the squat-to-address-children as Princess Diana’s signature move, but this article now credits it to her son, Prince William. Either way, it’s an empathetic move and helps level the playing field between adult and child.
- Embrace humor. Pete seems to be a naturally funny guy, so perhaps it’s not difficult for him, but adding some humor – and flowing with funny situations when they happen – makes the event more engaging and fun. Child: “Can I have an even bigger bunny?” Pete: “Well how big is your bunny now?  Child: [sticks arms over head]. Pete: “That big. Well. Uh. [Pauses.] Sure. [Applause and laughter.] You know there’s always at least one question that you didn’t see coming.” [More laughter.]
- Use normal diction (i.e., words) . Public speaking, especially in politics, is not the time to show off your vocabulary. Pete went to Harvard and was a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford. I’m sure he has a banging vocabulary. But you’re not trying to prove you’re the smartest person in the room at a Town Hall meeting; you’re trying to get people to like you. That means no talking down to people and not using fancy words when simple ones will do. On a few occasions, I heard Pete auto-correcting to a simpler word, after starting a more complex one.
- No free air-time. He generally didn’t say the words Trump or Biden. But he did say things like “we don’t want to go back to the Democratic era of the 1990s just like we don’t want to go back to the current administration’s era of the 1950s. We want to go forward, …” He used words like “White House,” “current administration,” or even “current President.” But he didn’t say Trump.
- Make it real. A key part of Pete’s message is that we shouldn’t look at political decisions as some distant, academic, theoretical policy discussion. We should stay focused on how they affect peoples’ lives. Pete: “When we think of climate change, we see imagery of a polar bear or a glacier melting. I want to change the dialog so we think about floods that are only supposed to happen every 100 years happening only 2 years apart.” Ditto for a conversation about healthcare where he talked about its impact on his family. Ditto for a conversion about his marriage that wouldn’t have been possible but for a single supreme court justice’s vote.
- Tell stories. Given all the attention story-telling has gotten of late, this one probably goes without saying, but always remember that human beings love stories and that information communicated within the context of a story is much more likely to heard, understood, and remembered than information simply communicated as a set of facts. Great speakers always communicate and/or reinforce their key messages via a series of stories. Pete is a highly effectively story-teller and communicated many of his key messages through personal stories.
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 See my FAQ for my social media policy. In short, because my Twitter feed is a curated version of everything I read, I post on a broad array of subjects which, in the current era, includes politics. However, I try to keep my blog free from any political content – with one exception: since politicians are generally highly skilled in marketing communications, I try to learn from them and apply what they can teach us in high-tech. Towards that end, by the way, I always recommend following two people: Alan Kelly, a high-tech PR maven (the PR guy who put Oracle on the map) who decided to take his game to the big leagues by taking his system to DC and opening a communications firm there and Frank Luntz, a market researcher, pollster, and author of Words that Work.
 On “there’s always some engineer not afraid to ask anything” theory, I have heard the story of an All Hands where an engineer asked the CEO what he thought about the VP of Sales having an affair with the VP of Marketing. OK, that’s awkward for the person who suggested the Town Hall format.
 Where at a User Conference when asked why so few women were in Engineering leadership, the VP responded that the company had many women on the team but they tended to work in the “more arts and crafts positions,” which made everyone in the crowd wonder if they were cutting paper flowers with scissors or building software.
 “So did that answer your question?” Response: “No. Not at all. And I have three more.”
 If you do, you are silently seeking confirmation (“did that answer your question?”) and potentially inviting the questioner to ask a follow-up question. If you’re trying to work a room, you want to engage as many different people as possible.
 Or those, as you can see in the Princess Diana link, otherwise unable to get up.
 Applying the “engage the person” rule.
 Yes, that was a touch of deliberate snark. 🙂
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