I finally felt well enough Wednesday night to watch the convention speeches in real time. I’ll let others parse Joe Biden’s salty language (“that’s malarkey!”) or Obama’s grace. Instead, I’d like you to think for a moment about Tim Kaine.
He ended his speech well, rallying the crowd by linking Hillary Clinton with some of the great political leaders of the 20th and 21st centuries:
My fellow Democrats, this week we start the next chapter in our great and proud story. Thomas disclaimed all men were equal and Abigail remembered the women. Woodrow brokered the peace and Eleanor broke down the barriers. Jack told us what to ask and Lyndon answered the call.
Martin had a dream and Cesar y Dolores said si se puede. And Harvey gave his life. Bill, Bill built a bridge into the 21st Century and Barack gave us hope. And now Hillary is ready! She is ready to fight! She is ready to win! And she is ready to lead!
But if you felt like it took him a while to find his rhythm, to connect with the crowd, there’s a reason for it. And it’s probably my biggest pet peeve about speakers: He started with a litany of thank-yous.
Now there are a lot of good reasons a politician—especially someone relatively unknown on the national stage—would want to mention his family members by name. But work them into the speech in a way that they add value to your remarks. Kaine did that—but he was at the podium for a full minute and a half before he got to what I believe his speechwriters intended to be the opening of his speech. Ninety seconds! By then, he’d lost the attention of all but his most ardent admirers. He got the attention back, but he had to work for it.
You know I’m right: How many times have you been in an audience when a speaker thanks a litany of people “for having me here today” or “for organizing this great event”? Unless yours is going to be one of those names the speaker mentions, I’m willing to bet you tune out for that part.
Time magazine’s website has a transcript of the remarks as delivered and a video for those of you who’d rather watch. Here’s how the Senator opened his big speech:
Thank you everybody. Hello, Philadelphia!
(APPLAUSE) Hello Democratic families.
I want to start off by thanking my beautiful wife and my three wonderful children, Nat, Woody, and Annella. They are sitting right up there.
You Know my son, Nat, deployed with his Marine battalion just two days ago.
Now, that confused me. Is Nat sitting “right up there” or is he in the desert somewhere? Obviously it’s testimony to the character of the senator’s family that his son enlisted—that’s important for us to know—but inserting it in this thank-you opening feels very unfocused. Senator Kaine continued:
KAINE: He deployed overseas to protect and defend the very NATO allies that Donald Trump says he now wants to abandon.
Semper fi, Nat! Semper fi!
My parents and my in-laws are here. Our siblings and their spouses. Our nieces and nephews, and hundreds of friends from Virginia and beyond.
I love seeing you front and center. Including my friend of 37 years, senior Senator Mark Warner. My great Governor Terry McAuliffe.
And my great friend and Congressman Bobby Scott.
We love you all.
And there you have it, the first 90 seconds of the most important speech this man has given to date and we know three things: He’s got a family, a son in the marines, and important political supporters in his home state. Only the second bit of information is really essential, and he could have easily woven it into the passage that came next (in which he thanks his family by name yet again). This, as I’ve said, is where I think the speechwriters intended the speech to begin:
Today, for my wife Anne and every strong woman in this country, for Nat, Woody, and Annella, and every young person starting out in life to make their own dreams real, for every man and woman serving our country in the military at home or abroad, for every working family working hard to get ahead and stay ahead, for my parents and in-laws and every senior citizen who hopes for a dignified retirement with health care and research to end diseases like Alzheimer’s.
KAINE: For every American who wants our country to be a beloved community where people are not demeaned because of who they are but rather respected for their contributions to this nation, and for all of us who know that the brightest future for our country is the one that we build together, and for my friend, Hillary Clinton, I humbly accept my party’s nomination to be vice president of the United States.
That’s some good, old-fashioned speech-making there. The subordinate clauses piling on top of one another heighten the drama of the moment—when will he say it? Oh say it, Senator, say it because we want to applaud you!
I can’t even imagine how disorienting it must be to walk out onstage and see an arena filled with noisy people waving signs at you, and knowing you’re about to give the speech of your career. I can absolutely understand the urge to engage in small talk until your heart stops racing and your knees stop shaking.
But those are the moments when you have to trust your speechwriter. Trust the process that got you to that podium with the speech that expresses your vision and values. Trust that we’ve built in all the thanks you’ll need to give—and that we’ve crafted an opening that will capture people’s attention from the moment you open your mouth.
That’s our job. So—whether you’re speaking in an arena or a ballroom, to ten thousand or a hundred—no thank yous. Please.