Avoid Bernie Sanders’ public speaking mistake

You’ve got a rousing speech, guaranteed to raise cheers? Don’t be too sure of that. Consider what happened to Bernie Sanders in South Carolina recently.

Bernie Sanders recently spoke to a predominantly African-American audience in the dining room of a South Carolina church. According to this account, the response from the mealtime crowd was tepid: polite clapping for all but a couple of lines.

We’re used to reading about packed stadiums roaring their approval for Mr. Sanders’ stump speech. So where did this one go off the rails?

It’s hard to judge from a single news story, but this sounds an awful lot like a rally speech delivered to a decidedly non-rally crowd.

There’s a big difference between a crowd that assembles to hear you speak, and a crowd assembled for a completely different reason, where you happen to be a guest.

The first audience is motivated: they’re here just to hear you. If they’re anything like the people at Mr. Sanders’ rallies, they either support you already, or they’re eagerly waiting to be persuaded.

The second audience isn’t. They may be too polite to say so, but they’re accepting your presence on sufferance. You need to earn and re-earn their attention right from the beginning of the speech, and all the way through.

If he isn’t doing it already after that dinner, Sanders would be smart to retool his stump speech for audiences who aren’t yet feeling the Bern.

Retooling a stump speech should include:

  • More time to build bridges and establish a connection with the audience.
  • Adjusting expectations, and rewriting applause lines to yield thoughtful nodding instead of big cheers (Few things are more awkward than pausing for applause that never comes, or arrives in a sad, thin trickle.).
  • Possibly cutting the speech way back, and spending more time talking one-on-one.

If the news story is accurate, the need to retool should have been clear to Mr. Sanders when the big lines of the man introducing him, former NAACP president Benjamin Jealous, fell flat. And if tepid applause was the worst that happened, Mr. Sanders got off lucky. I’ve seen speakers who didn’t understand they weren’t speaking to fans get booed and heckled.

Sanders’ message has inspired a lot of people, including me. But no message can inspire if it’s delivered in the wrong way at the wrong time. It comes down to knowing your audience, respecting your audience and listening to your audience. It always does.

Related: Join speechwriters for three U.S. presidents in our executive comms and speechwriters conference in Washington, D.C.

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