(The Root) — Last week's Republican National Convention provided a powerful reminder that while most political speeches are rarely memorable, the really bad ones tend to be unforgettable. Actor Clint Eastwood's prime-time conversation with a chair — which he referred to as the invisible President Obama — became an instant Twitter hit, with @InvisibleObama becoming a Twitter handle before night's end. (At last check the account had more than 68,000 followers.)
That speech also turned the long-admired actor known for his tough-guy persona into an object of ridicule. Democrats and Republicans who agree on little else were virtually unanimous: The speech was a dud, the kind that will be remembered for years to come for all the wrong reasons.
But the spotlight that Eastwood and his chair generated raises an age-old question: What makes a good speech? And what does President Obama have to do Thursday night to leave Americans convinced that he made one?
According to Doug Gordon, managing director of FitzGibbon Media, a leading progressive communications-strategy firm, "Convention speeches that break through have grand themes for the audience following at home, as well as memorable one-liners." He pointed to examples such as the late Sen. Ted Kennedy's speech at the 1980 Democratic National Convention, then-Illinois state Sen. Obama's speech at the 2004 convention and Gov. Sarah Palin's speech at the 2008 RNC, which spawned the oft-referenced line, "The difference between a hockey mom and a pit bull? Lipstick."
Some are already predicting that first lady Michelle Obama’s convention speech, as well as former President Bill Clinton’s may soon join that elite list. Both of their speeches elicited deafening cheers from the crowd and high marks from critics. Clinton’s now sterling reputation as one of the greatest speakers in American politics is particularly noteworthy, given that he did not start out that way. His first Democratic National Committee keynote address in 1988, became infamous for its meandering length, and how quickly and angrily the audience turned on him. Though his speeches still sometimes draw criticism for lacking in brevity, today he is universally praised for his ability to grip an audience. His evolution as a speaker could perhaps be attributed to learning one of the fundamentals of a successful speech: make sure it’s about the audience, and not about you.
Dan Gerstein, founder of Gotham Ghostwriters, which specializes in helping high-level clients craft and deliver winning speeches, said that there are countless small details that can help make the difference between a winning speech and one that bombs. The most important advice he would give any client, however, is what he called "the oldest speechwriting maxim in the book: Show, don't tell." In the case of President Obama, he said, that means, "Show the public you are thinking about them, their future and what you are going to do to make it better."
To Gordon's and Gerstein's points, history's most celebrated speeches tend to emphasize hopes that extend beyond the person giving it, and a theme that looms larger than the moment in which the speech is being given. Both Martin Luther King Jr.'s "I Have a Dream" speech and President Obama's star-making speech in 2004 emphasized the greatness of America, as well as each speaker's desire to see our country become even greater, for the benefit of all Americans and in the interest of securing a more promising future.
But King's and Obama's speeches also have something else in common: They were delivered by two of history's most acclaimed speakers. Even President Obama's critics acknowledge his gifts as a speaker, with "articulate" being a common adjective used to describe him. But with an entire election at stake, simply being eloquent may not be enough.
Gerstein, Gordon and political consultant Basil Smikle all agreed that the president's speech needs to be inspiring but also substantive in articulating key messages — among them that he has a clear plan for addressing the economy if given a second term. But, Smikle added, "While his speech should be motivating and reassuring to Democrats, it should really be geared toward disaffected voters — especially independents."
This is particularly challenging because, as Gerstein pointed out, people most likely to watch conventions are those most interested in politics and a specific political party, which means in some ways that the president will be preaching to the choir. But Gerstein added that media coverage of a speech's key highlights can have an impact and reach those not watching the convention, something that the heavy coverage, and praise, of first lady Michelle Obama's convention speech this week proves.
According to Gerstein, this leaves the president with quite a balancing act: He must fire up loyal Democratic voters who are enthusiastic about some of his more partisan policies without alienating the very independent voters whom Smikle notes Obama needs to reach.
A tough act, for sure, but not impossible, particularly for someone Gordon dubbed one of "the best orators" there is. But ultimately, the experts agree that speeches don't win elections — a candidate's overall package does. This means that a speech essentially becomes one chapter in the story told of a candidate — albeit an important one.
History is littered with great orators who ran for president and never won, among them the Rev. Jesse Jackson and Sen. Kennedy. But Gordon acknowledged that today's social media landscape means that the impact of a great speech or a bad one can be felt more immediately, and spread virally in a way that did not exist in previous campaigns.
This is why news outlets declared, "Twitter Elects Michelle Obama President of Speeches," after the first lady's convention triumph, while "Eastwooding," in which people took photos with empty chairs, became an instant online meme, and an embarrassing online souvenir of the RNC. So if President Obama delivers the speech of his life — one that inspires the hopes and dreams of Americans while simultaneously reassuring them of his competence in handling the economy, and also drawing sharp contrasts with his opponent — he may not automatically win the election, but he may win the news cycle. Sometimes that is almost as important.
Of course, he has some serious competition to win the campaign communications showdown. And so far it appears that the president might end up losing his oratorical crown — not to opponent Mitt Romney but to his own wife, whose DNC speech this week has many believing that the president may not be the most articulate Obama after all.
Keli Goff is The Root's political correspondent.
Keli Goff is The Root’s special correspondent. Follow her on Twitter.