Dear President Zuma,
Judging from your SONA 2015 performance — I mean your speech, not the farcical first act about which others have written with considerable dismay — I have to believe that you don’t have a communications coach.
(If you do have a communications coach, however, he or she should be taken out behind the Parliament building and shot.)
So I hope you won’t be offended if I give you some feedback on your speechifying. My qualifications are that I’ve trained thousands of people in hundreds of workshops in a dozen countries on how best to communicate to other people.
I’ll try to be gentle. And where I can, offer solutions to your manifold and manifest problems.
Even by the low standard of your previous speeches, SONA 2015 was appallingly bad.
It was supposed to be your report to the nation on how we’re doing and what we can expect in the future. Instead, it was a dull-as-dishwater wish-list of political and bureaucratic obfuscation.
Mr. President, you rely on your undoubted personal charm, charisma, warmth, wit, and intelligence to win over people. One on one, I’m told, you’re among the most persuasive and attractive political leaders in all the world.
But your personal skills only work when you’re face to face, gripping the flesh, slapping the back. Grinning that lovely, so-welcoming grin.
Not when you’re on TV.
Your problem is simply that — in spite of your overweening ambition and legendary skill in the blood sport of politics — you’ve never bothered to learn how to make a speech to a TV audience.
As a result, your speeches are among the least effective of any of the world’s political leaders.
Best speechmaking political leader alive today, by far, is Barack Obama (who has a performance coach). Check out this climax from his 2013 State of the Union speech. (The words should apply just as much to this country.)
…we all share the same proud title — we are citizens. It’s a word that doesn’t just describe our nationality or legal status. It describes the way we’re made. It describes what we believe. It captures the enduring idea that this country only works when we accept certain obligations to one another and to future generations, that our rights are wrapped up in the rights of others.
Stirring words. Inspiring words. The great orator lifts them off the script, makes them his own. Talks to one person at a time. They’re the sort of words we hoped would come out of your mouth.
But so sadly didn’t.
Right behind Obama in the speechifying stakes I’d put Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. He speaks from the heart in short spoken-language sentences when he defends his nation like a lover who can never admit to any fault in his beloved.
Then there’s British Prime Minister David Cameron, who speaks his words with genuine passion and stirs emotions even though he so obviously represents his nation’s fast-fading upper class and its even faster-fading culture.
Nor really much international political speechmaking talent in today’s world leaders after these three.
Embarrassingly though, even your ancient ally across the border, Robert Mugabe, makes better speeches than you.
So what, you ask, are you doing wrong?
Once upon a time, Margaret Thatcher was scorned as so “shrill” she was banned from party broadcasts. Eventually, reluctantly and very privately, she went to a communications coach for help.
The Iron Lady served as British Prime Minister for 21 years, longest of any British leader in the 20th. Century. While in office she was respected and feared as one of the world’s most persuasive speakers.
Thatcher realised, among other insights, that good speeches are storytelling and storytelling has an ancient and compelling structure. Context leads to foreshadowing, to dramatic development, to the ever-popular climax, and ends with denouement (a fancy French word for wrap-up.)
Your SONA 2015 speech, by contrast, Mr. President, bears no resemblance to storytelling. It has no continuity, no theme, no focus and no story arc.
In fact, it’s nothing more than a dreary and often questionable series of claimed successes and vague hopes stumbled through in no discernible order.
It’s not a speech. It’s a laundry list. It’s not worthy of our nation’s leader.
Oh dear. Oh dear. Oh dear.
Is there no-one in all your court who can actually write? Is there no-one who knows something of the beauty and power of words? Is there no-one who understands the simple fact that because a speech is to be spoken, it should be written in spoken — not written — language?
Obviously not. Instead, your SONA 2015 speech shows every sign of being cut-and-pasted together by dozens of dull, fearful and massively over-optimistic flunkies/bureaucrats.
For instance, consider this single and far-less-than-stirring answer to your earlier request that we, the people, tell you what we want you to include in your speech:
In terms of the inputs, our people are concerned about, among other things, crime, roads, access to education, youth internship schemes, water, electricity, and support for small businesses. Contributions requiring feedback are being referred to government departments for action.
Just imagine what a good writer could have done with this list (presuming it wasn’t invented by presidential flacks.) It’s the voice of the people. Yet you dismiss the people’s concerns with absolutely no detail and the old don’t-worry-it’s-all-been-referred-to-government-departments reaction.
(Remember that old joke about three promises that will scare the hell out of anyone? The only printable promise of the three is: “We’re from the government and we’re here to help!”)
But I digress. A good writer would have taken each of those citizen-points and made them come alive. A good writer would have turned the list into a genuine report to the people from a caring president:
These are the problems you, the people, have told me you have. I truly understand that you’re worried and why you’re worried. And here’s what my government and I are doing to try to solve each of your problems. This is my promise.
My advice for the next SONA — find a writer who can actually write. A writer who respects the language and can express facts, concepts and ideas in simple, vivid, human, everyday, spoken language.
If that happens, sir, you’ll at least have a chance to express facts, concepts and ideas in simple, vivid, human, everyday, spoken language when you stand up there before parliament and the people.
As a communications coach I have to assume that the first time you ever actually see the script for any of your speeches is when you see the printed pages sitting there on the podium and you do your little chuckle and start trying to read someone’s else’s words.
I can’t think of any other reason for the sheer awfulness of your SONA 2015 performance on-camera.
A good communications coach would have told you that truth. And added that anyway, one person reading aloud to another person (or 53-million other people) is the least effective, least efficient, least persuasive way of passing on information, one to the other, we humans have ever invented.
Your speechifying is a disaster. For one thing, you almost never look at your audience. Instead, you drone inexorably along, head-down, eyes fixed on script, except on the rare occasion when you slip in an aside to your party acolytes and giggle. And the acolytes respond with roars of predictable adoration.
Meantime, your audience drifts away to Isidingo, Spud, or, more likely, soccer. Anywhere-but-the-SONA.
You lose us. We, the people whose leader and servant you are. We, the people who look to you to explain your version of our past and, more important, your vision of our future. We the people who, not incidentally will decide the next election.
You seem constantly surprised by the words on the pages in front of you. They’re obviously someone else’s words. You make no effort to adopt them as your own. instead, you just read them. Very badly at that.
So how do you get to own the words you read? How will you make SONA 2016 come alive?
First understand that when one person is trying to communicate essential information to another, the speaker’s performance — revealed emotion, body language, pacing, pausing, volume etc. — is just as important as any words used.
Country singer Kathy Mattea, sings about it in Come From The Heart:
You’ve got to sing like you don’t need the money,
Love like you’ll never get hurt.
You’ve got to dance like nobody’s watching,
It’s got to come from the heart,
If you want it to work.
Mattea is saying that before you, the performer, can persuade your audience to see, feel, understand and retain the information you’re sending, you have to see, feel, understand and retain that information yourself.
Which is why, before making next year’s SONA speech, you should:
- Find a writer who respects the language and can write so you sound like a human being who actually cares about his people and genuinely wants them to know the state of the nation.
- Take time to rehearse the script, thus processing the information through your own knowledge, memory, experience, emotions and humanity. (I can show you how.)
- Take ownership away from the written script so you, not the script, become the primary source of the information.
- Make the script, the written word, disappear into the thoughts. So your audience hears what you’re saying, sees what you’re talking about, feels its emotional meaning and even, lord help us all, remembers some of what you say.
- Make the information personal, human-to-human, rather than impersonal, distant, abstract and bureaucratic.
- Share the information with a single viewer — using your normal voice when talking to just one other person — instead of droning on at an unseen audience of millions.
The best speakers literally think the script’s thoughts, see the script’s scenes and share in the script’s emotions while delivering the information.
As a result — miraculously — so does the audience.
But that can’t happen until you take ownership of the information for yourself. Only then can you share it with the viewer.
Your job, sir, is to seize the information and make it personal. So there’s something of value, a precious gift, to pass on to South Africans.
And — most important of all — if you want it to work, you have to believe what you say. Believe it to be true. Believe it will help we South Africans understand our country better. Believe it will give us an honest insight into our future under your government.
If you can do all this next year you will serve your audience and your cause very well indeed.
Check out President Zuma’s State of the Nation speech on the YouTube channel. Please be aware that this video has audio and video synchronization issues.