The presidential election itself is more than a year away, but whether we like it or not, we are in the midst of 18-20 presidential campaigns. I would like to use this space to look at how effectively some of the candidates are communicating with audiences. I think there is something to be learned about effective communication from their speeches and interviews. This is not political analysis; it’s communication analysis. If I do it well, you won’t be able to see my own politics in these comments.
Senator Marco Rubio gave a speech on September 25, 2015 to the Value Voters Summit. It was a conservative audience. In fact, Rubio got a standing ovation when he announced the resignation of House Speaker John Boehner, a figure regarded by many conservatives as a traitor to their cause. Using the Communispond audience scoring tool, I estimate the Value Voters Summit scores about a five out of a possible 20 - the easiest possible audience to persuade.
Persuasion occurs in four distinct steps.
1) The persuader shows the audience its pain,
2) the persuader offers a recommendation for relieving the pain,
3) the persuader provides some evidence of how the recommendation will succeed, and
4) the persuader calls on the audience to take some action on the recommendation.
The pain Rubio chose to highlight was the pain of the erosion of family in modern America:
“But too often, especially in recent years, Washington has tried to compete with the family rather than support it. In fact, it’s tried to redefine family. It’s persecuted and now even prosecuted those who do not agree with the new direction that those seek to take us. It has punished marriage, the foundation of family life, by taxing married couples more than singles.”
Surprisingly, he offered a specific recommendation to help relieve this pain: a tax credit to employers who offer paid family leave, so that parents can spend more time with their children. It’s not clear how much the audience was persuaded. And it’s not clear how much Rubio was treating this as a persuasion event. He spent only 3 minutes of his 26-minute speech on this recommendation and the need for it.
It can’t be very difficult to sell a conservative audience on the recommendation of a corporate tax break. But the Value Voters Summit is not a tax policy event. Its focus is on values – family, faith, tradition – and Rubio did a creditable job of relating his recommendation to family. He also did a good job of relating it his personal story, which is one of growing up as a child of immigrants in a strong, traditional family without privilege.
While he may not have persuaded the audience, he clearly charmed them. The audience interrupted his 26-minute speech with applause 19 times.
Immigration was not a focus of this Values Voter Summit, but the audience is socially conservative. In the era of Donald Trump, it was a calculated risk on Rubio’s part to try to promote sympathy for immigrants. He did not talk directly about immigration policy, but he spoke with feeling about being the son of immigrants and used his experience as a way to remind them of the American dream. And describing the strength of his own family provided him with a foundation for discussing the problem of the erosion of family.
He deserves an “A” for audience analysis, an “A” for charm, and an “A” for audience focus. But this speech deserves a “C” for persuasion. Given his personal story, he had a good case to make on immigration reform, but rather than make it, he simply repeated the well-worn slogan about securing our borders. In fact, he spent nearly 90 percent of the speech – on topics ranging from the Iran nuclear deal to religious liberty, Obamacare, the right to life, and gun rights – repeating slogans the audience wanted to hear. It was an easy audience, and Rubio wasted an opportunity to challenge them.