Mitt Romney is about to deliver the most important speech of his life, at the GOP convention in Tampa. What's fascinating is that Romney is one of the worst communicators to win any party's presidential nomination in recent memory.
Although Romney has been running for President for almost a decade, he continues to routinely make gaffes and verbal blunders that step on his larger message, such as his recent "joke" that "No one's ever asked to see my birth certificate."
Bad communicators generally lose elections when paired against better ones, as Bill Clinton's and Ronald Reagan's opponents learned. But more problemmatic for the country might be if Romney won, since bad communicators don't make the list of great presidents, which includes the likes Lincoln, Jefferson, Washington and both Roosevelts.
Even Obama, a great speechmaker as a candidate but generally seen as a failed communicator as president, acknowledged last month that "the mistake of my first term" was failing to understand "the nature of this office is also to tell a story to the American people that gives them a sense of unity and purpose and optimism, especially during tough times." Of course, it's also mistake to talk about your failed communications efforts, rather than just fixing them.
Romney made a particularly revealing response to that statement: "President Obama believes that millions of Americans have lost their homes, their jobs and their livelihood because he failed to tell a good story. Being president is not about telling stories. Being president is about leading, and President Obama has failed to lead."
Actually, effective communications and leadership is all about telling stories, which is to say the systematic use of the figures of speech, otherwise known as rhetoric, the 25-century-old art of persuasion. Rhetoric was developed by the Greeks, who codified the tricks used by the great bards like Homer to remember their epic stories.
Modern social science research has shown that the figures are indeed the key to being memorable and persuasive, as I discuss in my book, Language Intelligence: Lessons on Persuasion from Jesus, Shakespeare, Lincoln and Lady Gaga.
Ironically, Romney has actually been telling a story about himself, it just happens to be a negative one. In a series of off-the-cuff remarks during the Republican presidential primary, the former governor and businessman, who is worth a quarter-billion dollars, became the stereotypical out-of-touch rich guy:
- "Corporations are people, my friend."
- "I like being able to fire people who provide services to me."
- "I know what it's like to worry whether you're going to get fired."
- "I'm not concerned about the very poor."
- "Ann [his wife] drives a couple of Cadillacs, actually."
- "I have some great friends who are NASCAR team owners."
- "I'm also unemployed."
How bad is Romney as a communicator? Politico talked to "thirty different Republican leaders across the country" about Romney, and reported in June that "they are so nervous that he'll improvise rhetorically, which got him into a lot of trouble in the primary."
Romney gave a widely panned speech in a nearly empty football stadium before the Michigan primary in April. NPR noted the "a disastrous speech" was criticized because it "sounded like a mushy rehash of things he had already rolled out." The reporter asked who wrote the speech. The reply: "After some hemming and hawing, the senior advisors sort of rolled their eyes and said the governor wrote the speech, meaning Romney wrote it."
So Romney lacks the language intelligence to speak off-the-cuff or write his own speeches. That's an obvious stumbling block to beating an incumbent President who can do both.
But what would it mean if Romney became President? Can a tone-deaf, gaffe-prone politician become an inspirational leader who successfully guides the country through political division, war, and economic strife? I don't believe there is a single example of one in U.S. history