Thursday, April 11th, 2013
Rand Paul’s Howard University Speech Lesson: Know Your Audience
I’m going to walk out on a really thin branch with this post, since I’m addressing the sensitive topic of race, coupled with the communication essential of understanding your audience, wrapped in the blanked of politics. Yikes. Steady we go…as always leave your red, blue and tea hats at the door, and read for the presentation faux pas of Rand Paul during his trip to Howard University, yesterday.
One of the major lessons learned by Republicans last fall was that America was its own rainbow of people, with each group having different interests, needs, and expectations, based on their different experiences living in this country. To their credit, there has been a more visible outreach effort by some to at begin a conversation, or at the very least acknowledge the presence of, and begin speaking to the diverse groups that make up this nation. The most recent action was by Rand Paul, Tea Party Heavyweight, in his trip Wednesday to Howard University, DC’s only Historically Black College.
The communication mistakes were plentiful. Here are just a few, and impact of those faux pas. As an added note for context, regardless of where you sit on the issue of diversity, inclusion or race, the faux pas would still be mistakes with a different audience where lack of audience analysis is so readily apparent.
- Mistake: He stated he never opposed the Civil Rights Act, then further clarified that the parts he didn’t oppose were parts not related to race.
- Impact: He is on the record stating the parts with regards to race were unconstitutional. Given his 95% black audience who lives with racial bias as a part of their daily lives, and the Civil Rights Act grants them equal opportunity and protection under the law publicly and privately, this wasn’t the game winning shot with this audience. They could then look at him as pandering and insulting their intelligence that they must be uneducated about the law, or uninformed about his positions.
- Mistake: He openly stated “I don’t know what you know…”
- Impact: The first part of preparing to speak to any group is investigation. Investigating who they are, what they know, what they don’t know and what they care about. Stating you don’t know what your audience knows, means you didn’t care enough to take the time, or ask a staffer, to find out how to connect with them. They will show you the same indifference as they listen to you.
- Mistake: He couldn’t remember the name of the first African-American republican senator.
- Impact: Black history is only taught during February in most school systems, so most people aren’t aware of the rich, powerful, influential, accomplished, and successful blacks throughout history. BUT, at an HBCU where 95% of the population and faculty is black, the full history is taught, learned, and retained. To enter an HBCU campus and quote historical facts and data involving African Americans and other blacks of all backgrounds, you must be very clear and informed. Because if you believe nothing else, your audience will be both. As proven in this session where the audience told him the correct name, and he repeated it incorrectly. This momentary memory lapse causes not only credibility problems, but also leads the audience to doubt sincerity. It has a little disrespectful undertone, since it implies that he doesn’t believe they know history, or that he thought he could throw in a quick fact learned on the way to the school, without really appreciating its meaning.
- Mistake: He drew references to “Lincoln’s Republican Party” and stated “we haven’t changed.”
- Impact: Even long standing Republicans will tell you the two parties are different. Political analysts have been picking apart what’s happening within the party to cause a split, and most recognize the internal chasm that exists between traditional republicans, extreme “rightists,” the “tea party,” and moderates. The term “identity crisis” has come up more than a few times. So it doesn’t take a rocket scientist, let alone hundreds of college students, to figure out the party isn’t the same as it was 20 years ago, let alone a hundred and fifty years ago. So his credibility takes a big hit. Again, he runs the risk of insulting their intelligence and underestimating their education.
- Mistake: He politely asked the group to “hear him out.”
- Impact: Here’s the thing. People love giving others the benefit of the doubt, about as much as we love cheering for the underdog in sports. However, we only want to root for the underdog, when the underdog shows a genuine and sincere interest in getting a fair shake. Just look at Florida Gulf Coast in March Madness. No one had heard of the team, and didn’t think to root for them, until they showed they “had game” and were worthy of chance. People were cheering against their own brackets to give them a shot. The Kentucky senator’s failure to demonstrate he took the time to research his audience and find ways to connect with them, so they had a reason to hear him out, left the auditorium quiet, flat and apathetic.
Here are some really important things to remember about your audience…whatever they look like. Audiences are selfish by nature, ALL audiences, white ones, black ones, Latino ones, gay ones, straight ones, Christian ones, Muslim ones, elderly ones, young ones and everyone in between. That means they listen with the filter of finding the information that is of most concern or useful to themselves. We call that “listening for the WIIFMs (What’s In It For Me). They don’t need to agree with what they hear, but they need to at least hear the issues about which they have some concern or interest. Sen. Paul would have done much better to have acknowledged where they may disagree, but then give his platform as to why his beliefs are such. An even better approach, when approaching a skeptical audience, whom you have not had time to research, would be to state subjects you feel they may have an interest or concern, and then ask the audience to share their thoughts, so you may address them directly. Assumptions can be your worst enemy and turn your skeptical audience into a hostile one if you don’t approach them appropriately.
Take a moment to share your experiences in dealing with a tough audience. We’d love to know how you prepared, and managed the energy in the room.
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