A once little-known senator from Illinois became living proof of the power of one great speech to launch a national political career. We’ve now had a painful reminder of just the opposite: a disastrous speech that may dim the national spotlight for an un-tested speech-maker.
Governor Bobby Jindal had his national debut February, delivering his party’s response to the President’s first speech to the joint Congress. It wasn’t just that Jindal suffered by comparison to the accomplished communicator-in- chief (he did), but that he failed by any measure.
The popular Louisiana Governor, touted as the “rising star” of his party, not only fell miserably short of communicating his message. Both stylistically and substantively, Jindall proved, in just one amateurish, jarring performance, he was not ready for the national stage.
Jindall’s mistakes were numerous and they were devastating. Chief among them:
- Tone-deafness: In an apparent effort to overcome his ’first geek’ image, the Governor tried on a new, folksy demeanor. Not only did the result appear staged and uncomfortable, it had the unfortunate effect of branding him un-statesmanlike. Call this the Al Gore lesson: Seek to show you are comfortable in your own skin. Don’t confuse public speaking performance with acting.
- Message-deafness: Jindal’s speech seemed oddly disconnected from all that preceded it. A lengthy introduction juxtaposing the president’s immigrant roots with Jindal’s own seemed out of place given the urgency of the crisis he was there to address. His on-going criticism of big government, coming as it did from the governor of a state receiving billions of federal dollars in Katrina aide, coupled with finger-wagging lessons on clean government from a state not known for it, only further strained his credibility. Lesson learned: Get the right messages. Warning: Proximity to the speechmaker may cause blurred vision. Seek an objective critique outside the inner circle.
- Image-deafness: For all the hype surrounding President Obama’s “natural” talents as a communicator, his is a learned skill, honed most recently over a grueling, two-year campaign. Jindal’s attempts at imitation were painfully unsuccessful. His hallway walk to the camera was awkward, the standing delivery painful to watch, the disconcerting hand motions, sing-song delivery, and tentative voice at best amateurish. Lesson learned: Play to your strengths. Imitation is not flattering for the one doing the imitating. Find your leadership communication style, work on it, own it.
Whether Jindal will recover from his stunningly poor performance is yet to be determined. What is certain is the continued and dominant role powerful public speaking will play, even in this digital age.
Aileen Pincus is a former local and national television reporter and senior Senate Staff, now a leading executive communication coach, training corporate, government and non-profit executives in the art of communication.