Ron Chernow proved you don’t have to fire off one-liners to entertain a roomful of journalists.
The presidential historian was invited to deliver the keynote address at this year’s White House Correspondents’ Association dinner, in part to restore some authority and gravitas, as the event has come under attack from the chief executive.
Previous dinners have featured comedians, many of them late-night hosts such as Stephen Colbert, Seth Meyers, Jimmy Kimmel, Conan O’Brien and Craig Ferguson. The comics have invariably roasted the commander-in-chief.
This year, President Donald Trump ordered his staff to skip the dinner, exacerbating the rift between White House officials and the reporters who cover them.
Chernow, a Pulitzer Prize-winning author, rose to the occasion, providing these takeaways for speakers:
1. Don’t take yourself too seriously.
Chernow faced a big challenge going in: He was speaking to an audience used to hearing comedians deliver one-liners and snark, and he had to entertain them nonetheless.
Chernow quipped at the beginning: “I was surprised when I received the invitation to speak here tonight. I mean, I knew they weren’t approaching me as an international sex symbol.”
The joke got a smattering of laughs, but he relaxed the audience with that bit of self-deprecation. The speaker would obviously be relatable, offer humor and avoid preachiness.
Chernow would later revisit the importance of self-deprecation, recalling how John F. Kennedy used humor to parry political attacks. Chernow asserted that self-deprecation is an elegant way for a speaker or executive to defuse tension rather than escalate it.
To that end, he said the event’s organizers had told him they “wanted to try boring this year,” and he said he could easily deliver on that. The self-targeted jab got big laughs—and reset the bar for audience members’ expectations—letting them settle in for his main message.
2. Target your humor.
You don’t have to be a comedy club veteran to get laughs.
A speech can be a tedious affair without spicy anecdotes or a well-placed joke. However, using humor can be tricky. It’s important to know your audience, and many writers and speakers take pains to avoid offense.
However, sometimes you should push your audience’s buttons. Chernow aimed a few quips at the president and his supporters.
In one, he remarked that George Washington’s greatest mistake was forgetting to put his name on his home of Mount Vernon and having to settle for the moniker “father of his country,” a riff on one of Trump’s recent musings on U.S. history. The jokes made some grimace, but the tension kept the speech bouncing along and affirmed Chernow’s authenticity.
Know where the edge is, and take the occasional risk.
3. Offer great quotes.
Your speech doesn’t have to be completely original. Even great writers turn to historical figures and thinkers for insights about the human condition.
Chernow cited Thomas Jefferson, JFK, FDR and other presidents, as well as humorists. Chernow stole his best jokes from Mark Twain, including his parting shot: “Politicians and diapers should be changed often—and for the same reason.”
It’s OK to borrow from other writers, but know where your quotes are coming from, their context and how you can use them to make your point. Jefferson’s thoughts on a free press were an excellent fit for a night dedicated to the White House press corps. Even John Adams’ quote about facts being “stubborn things” had particular resonance.
It’s important to get the quote right, and verify who first said it, or you risk undermining your credibility. A quick online search can often help double-check your research, but be careful which sources you trust.
An award-winning historian earns that status by doing the homework meticulously.
4. Read the room—and take a pause.
The major flaw in Chernow’s performance was his delivery: At times he forged ahead through applause or stepped on a laugh.
Feeling out the room comes with practice—and Chernow has less stage time than the standups who usually address the WHCD. A good speechwriter knows where the build will reach a climax and can advise a speaker on when to take a breath, or to pause to let a quip land—and ride the laugh as it crests.
However, speakers should also be prepared for a lack of applause—and pushing on is always better than any appeal for an unearned response. Just ask Jeb Bush.
5. Transparency is the best policy.
The last lesson comes from the crux of the speech. Chernow discussed the historic relationship between the press and the Oval Office. In one remarkable story, he spoke about Franklin Delano Roosevelt entering the White House and changing how the president dealt with journalists.
“’We’re not going to have any more written questions,’ the genial president declared at his first press conference. ‘Of course, while I cannot answer 70 to 100 questions, I see no reason why I should not talk to you ladies and gentlemen off the record.’ (Please note the ‘ladies and gentlemen.’)
The 125 reporters packed into the Oval Office that day were so impressed by FDR’s clear, straightforward rules that they gave him a standing ovation at the end—the first and, undoubtedly, last time that would ever happen.”
It’s a remarkable anecdote, especially given our rancorous media climate. However, the lesson remains true for today’s communicators as it did for the communicators of the 1930s and ’40s. Straight dealing and open communication will always be a winning formula for media relations.
You can watch the full broadcast of Chernow’s speech here.