Watching Hillary Clinton’s concession speech on Wednesday reminded me of something I’ve said to many of my clients, “The best speeches are the hardest to give.” At times, the Democratic presidential nominee was teary eyed as she gave a powerful speech that was heartfelt, raw, passionate, sincere – qualities often lacking in Clinton’s campaign orations.
Another memorable and tearful speech was given earlier this year. On January 5, President Obama announced new executive actions on gun control. As he was talking about victims of recent mass shootings and gun violence, his voice choked up and tears streamed from his eyes. He wiped the tears from his face and, at one point, paused for an extended time to gather himself.
These remarkable speeches show why leaders should give difficult speeches and show genuine emotion during them. The following four suggestions are for leaders who are preparing to give a difficult speech that may induce crying. They are aimed, not at suppressing crying or distancing from emotion, but at helping speakers remain composed at the lectern so they can successfully share their important message with listeners:
1. Cry it out beforehand
Whenever possible, take a small amount of time to process the difficult news or situation before you speak about it. Clinton personally call President-elect Trump to congratulate him on his victory late on election night but waited until midmorning on Wednesday to give her concession speech. Surely, this was done in large part to allow for her speech to be viewed by more people, but it also gave her time to process the unanticipated election result before taking the lectern. I suspect she had a good cry in private before her speech and encourage other speakers to do the same.
2. Say it out loud
Sometimes, news doesn’t seem “real” until you say it out loud. As such, speakers should practice their presentation out loud (ideally several times when time permits) before delivering it publicly. And though I usually suggest that speakers present from a detailed outline so they have a more natural and extemporaneous delivery, it is helpful and entirely appropriate to speak from a manuscript for difficult speeches. Scripting ahead of time allows for more thoughtful and purposeful treatment of sensitive topics and prevents digressions in the heat of the moment that a speaker might later regret.
3. Pause if you break down
It’s OK if you start to cry in front of an audience. Stay at the lectern and finish your remarks. You may be able to speak through tear-filled eyes, as Clinton did. Or you may need to take long pauses to regain your composure, as Obama did. In fact, at one point in his speech, Obama paused in silence for a full 15 seconds as he looked down, pursed his lips, and put his hand to his mouth pensively before continuing.
Rest assured that audiences don’t mind pausing. Furthermore, pausing to cry can increase your emotional connection with listeners who also may be suffering, and can cause them to pay even more attention to your message.
4. Carry tissue
It’s a good idea to carry tissues whenever you’re speaking so you are ready to handle a sneeze or contact lens malfunction. It’s even more important when you are approaching an emotional or sensitive topic, even if you don’t think you will cry. Better to have a tissue or handkerchief than to get misty eyes and a runny nose without one.
There are times of loss or defeat that call for a public response from leaders of a group, community or nation to make sense of what happened and to help members / citizens begin the process of healing and moving forward. Communication theorist Lloyd Bitzer called such times “rhetorical situations.” Even though it is extraordinarily difficult to give a speech in these situations, hopefully these examples and suggestions will give you the courage to do just that and perhaps give a powerful speech that will be remembered for years to come.