Public speaking lessons from Judge Kavanaugh

The Supreme Court nominee’s speech showcases the value of a strong first impression.

First impressions are important, especially when you’re suddenly in the spotlight.

When Brett Kavanaugh stepped to the microphone Monday night, July 9, after President Donald Trump introduced him as his nominee to the Supreme Court, it was the first time many Americans heard him speak.

For Kavanaugh, the televised speech was an opportunity not only to set the tone for his confirmation process but to introduce himself to the American public. Yes, there are those who disliked him from the start, but there are many who weren’t familiar with him and likely have no opinion of him. Political philosophies aside, Judge Kavanaugh gave a speech that offers several lessons for public speakers:

Know the occasion

When we teach public speaking workshops, we talk about the importance of knowing the purpose and the occasion for your speech. Speakers can easily miss the mark and come across as disconnected if they forget what the audience is expecting them to do. Are you there to educate? Entertain? Inspire? For Kavanaugh, the purpose was to introduce himself to the American public—without any major blunders—and build a launchpad for his confirmation process.

Know your audience

It’s a simple piece of advice, but one that’s often overlooked. Kavanaugh’s remarks on Monday night showed he understood the importance of his audience, which included the senators who will vote on his confirmation to the Supreme Court. Knowing that an onslaught of criticism and scrutiny was coming his way, he took time to lay out his credentials as well as his judicial philosophy. His mention of Justice Elena Kagan hiring him at Harvard was strategic. Underneath his words was the theme that he believes he is qualified to serve on the Supreme Court, and he is ready to make that case.

Make it personal

If you’re looking for a way to breathe life into a dry topic, find ways to personalize your material. Kavanaugh could have easily stayed in the realm of his background and legal qualifications. It would have been largely forgettable. As we write this post, we remember more about the stories involving people in his life than anything else. Talking about his parents—how they went to law school later in life while working other jobs, and how his mom will always be the first Judge Kavanaugh—were powerful moments.

Use humor

Effective speeches are varied in their tone and content, keeping the audience engaged. Humor, when done well, is a great way to mix things up because it lightens the mood and helps the audience refocus its attention. Whether he was mentioning his youngest daughter who “likes to talk” or telling the story about a youth basketball team calling him Coach K (He’s clearly no Mike Krzyzewski), Kavanaugh’s lighter moments showed a side of him that can be hard to get across in a speech.

Keep it brief

Nothing ruins a speech faster than talking too long. Attention spans are short, and most in the audience have an expectation of when the speech should end. A long-winded talk will quickly erode the good things people might have remembered about your speech. Judge Kavanaugh’s speech was just under nine minutes. He covered a lot of ground, but kept it short enough to keep the audience tuned in.

Chad McLeod, along with Joe McLeod, is co-host of PR & Politics, a weekly podcast on politics, political communications and public relations stories.

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