“Speech Coach to the Stars” Ruth Sherman talks with Opportunist’s Managing Editor Leslie Stone about her new book, why she feels Carly Fiorina is the star of the recent Republican primary debates and what the Democratic candidates must do to differentiate themselves.
Political debates provide a national forum for candidates to challenge one another, attempt to earn voters’ trust on top issues and demonstrate their likability. And, according to Ruth Sherman, a prominent CEO and celebrity speech/media coach, candidates’ communication skills can actually make or break their political campaign. “For as long as I can remember, when it comes to presidential elections, the better communicator has always won,” she says. “A candidate’s oratorical and interpersonal skills can propel a candidate to the front of the pack quickly and decisively. Pres. Barack Obama would not have gotten his foot in the door had he not been a great speaker.” In both the 2008 and 2012 presidential races, she points out, his superior speaking skills outshone those of his more experienced opponents.
Sherman has coached hundreds of candidates running for office and, following political debates, she is frequently asked to give her critique on the candidates’ ability to communicate and to comment on who she felt was the most effective speaker. “These debates are a gift,” she says. “It’s such a great master class in speaking.”
A former faculty member of the Women’s Campaign School at Yale University, Sherman has worked with A-list clients including Deloitte, Apple, JP Morgan, Timex, Universal/Focus Features, Paramount, Versace International, among others. She is also a former Fast Company expert blogger and the author of Get Them To See It Your Way Right Away, How to Persuade Anyone of Anything (McGraw-Hill), which was named a Library Journal Best Business Book. She has been quoted in the New York Times, National Journal, The Wall Street Journal, The San Francisco Chronicle, and the New York Post and has appeared on ABC, CBS, MSNBC, CNBC, Fox and the BBC. Her latest book, Speakrets: The 30 Best, Most Effective, Most Overlooked Marketing And Personal Branding Essentials (Norsemen Books) shows readers how to improve their interpersonal and public communication skills.
Opportunist: What was your motivation for writing Speakrets and what do you hope readers get out of it?
Ruth Sherman: I wrote Speakrets because I had a lot to say and thought the time was right to put it into a book in bite-size, easy-to-read pieces. It’s a compilation of a number of essays I wrote over the previous two years that appeared in my blog and Fast Company column. They were edited, adjusted and updated for the book, which I felt would give people an easy way to learn a little bit about a lot of different things in the communication world.
If you look at the book, you will see that it’s divided into three sections. First is Private Speakrets, second is Business Speakrets and third is Public Speakrets. It’s not a storyline. You can use and apply something right then and there, whether it’s how to practice for a speech or picking up the phone and calling somebody, and it includes tips for how to reach your goals. There are also exercises in each of the chapters.
Opportunist: You have said that no matter how skilled, talented or dedicated someone is, if he or she doesn’t have a commanding presence long-term success will always be a struggle.
Ruth Sherman: The landscape is only becoming more competitive—extraordinarily competitive. With the exception of science and technology, there are more candidates than spots available. And most people in any given position have the same level of education, inhabit the same networks and have access to the same types of opportunities. Furthermore, a lot of interviews are taking place remotely or virtually via video. If you can present yourself in a way that engages your listeners it’s a rare skill that most people will not master. And, by the way, it goes across genders and professions. Most people aren’t going to spend time honing these skills, but it is the one thing that an individual can do to set him or herself apart from a crowd they may have everything else in common with. If they’re good at communication both presentationally and interpersonally, this is what is going to help them open the door and get the opportunity.
Opportunist: Now that the primary debates are upon us, what are the most effective ways for politicians to reach their audience?
Ruth Sherman: The ability to deliver a powerhouse speech. After that, it’s the personal story. The only way most people get to see these candidates is on TV or online. We are just starting to learn about the candidates and their backgrounds. Carly Fiorina’s is ‘From Secretary to CEO.’ That is how she is crafting her personal story or trajectory. Can people relate to that? Yes, it’s very clever. Sen. Lindsey Graham [R-South Carolina] is not in the top-tier lineup but his story of military service and background in the working class is very compelling. People want to know ‘Is that person like me?’ … ‘Does that person know how much a roll of toilet paper costs or what it’s like to pay rent or a to buy a house?’ … ‘Do I have confidence that he or she can make things better?’ There are people who would never vote for a Democrat and those who would never vote for a Republican, but that’s not who they’re going after. They are going to need to go after those people who don’t care what party it is and who want somebody to ‘just make my life better.’ Whoever is most successful in telling that story in just that way is going to win.
What’s their slogan and messaging like? For a message to be compelling—and there is only one right now—it has to have a ‘win theme.’ A win theme is only a few words, is easy for people to remember and easy for candidates to say over and over again. Right now the only win theme out there is Donald Trump’s ‘Make America Great Again!’ What does a win theme like this tell us? That America was great once, it isn’t anymore and he’s the one to make it great again. Four words. That is amazing. All of those feelings are in there. For there to be a win theme, a candidate has to differentiate and connect emotionally with the audience. So far, Trump is the only one who has been able to do that, and he has connected emotionally with a particular faction of the voters of the electorate.
Opportunist: How should female candidates present themselves?
Ruth Sherman: Strongly. Female candidates have a double bind. They have to be strong but not too strong. It has always been that way. It’s true for female business executives or any female in a leadership position. There is always an expectation of how women are supposed to be in the world—the helper, the nurturer and somebody who supports the male. When women digress from that and don’t meet those expectations they run the risk of being viewed unfavorably. They can’t smile too much, but some. They cannot necessarily be seen as somebody who is going to emasculate their opponents. We haven’t seen enough of Carly Fiorina yet to make any determination as to whether her strength and her ‘alpha-ness’ or assertiveness will eventually hurt. However, to get noticed certainly a woman has to be strong when competing in a sea of men and be able to hold her own against what we expect from men: direct statements, no hedging and a level of certainty. And a woman has to tread very carefully when it comes to meeting expectations. We don’t have any way to imagine a woman in the top spot in the White House because we have never had one. So a woman like Carly Fiorina or Hillary Clinton has to be able to persuade voters to imagine either one of them in the Oval Office. Also, what is it going to be like to have a first gentleman? That’s another piece of the pie.
Opportunist: Who were the most effective communicators in the recent Republican primary debates?
Ruth Sherman: Carly Fiorina, by far, was the most effective. She is head and shoulders above all her competition in terms of ability to communicate. The ‘Carly Fiorina show’ is the most polished. Why? She is talented and clearly recognized early on that she had this ability and she worked hard to hone her skills. After her, we can say Donald Trump. He’s been out there a lot longer. But Carly Fiorina is the star. She is everybody’s darling right now. It proves my point that I constantly make: she is there because she is the better communicator.
Fiorina stands on stage with far more experienced politicians and legislators and because she is fluent, and by fluent I mean she is able to formulate thoughts in her head and have them roll off her tongue with ease and a level of certainty without filler material or ‘ums’ and ‘uhs,’ she was the winner by far. I think everybody was waiting for somebody to take Donald Trump down and she was the one to do it. Whether you like Fiorina or not, if you were a woman listening to her, you couldn’t help but feel good for her or think I wish I could’ve done that.
Opportunist: According to recent data, Donald Trump’s ‘favorability’ among Republican voters has gone downhill over the past month. What can he do, communication-wise, to redeem himself?
Ruth Sherman: I predicted after the second debate that this was the beginning of the end for Donald Trump and so far that has been true. However, I don’t put anything past him in terms of redeeming himself or getting on the front pages. He has spent time in show business and has media mastery. He’s good at getting himself in the news and always has been. He did ‘60 Minutes’ last Sunday but we haven’t seen any improvement in his numbers since then. He’s got a New York Times article coming out, and whether that will increase his numbers remains to be seen.
What happened from an entertainment standpoint is the ‘Trump show’ became overexposed. Donald Trump has been saying the same things basically over and over again every day for three months and I think he got overexposed, which is the danger for any celebrity. It’s always a show, but it’s a big show at this stage of the game. You cannot keep saying the same stuff and expect people to keep listening.
Opportunist: The Democratic primary debates kick off in less than two weeks. What must the Democratic candidates do to distinguish themselves?
Ruth Sherman: Democrats are going to have to show themselves as more knowledgeable, more capable and more connected with the people’s most pressing needs than the Republicans have been able to do. So I expect them to focus on the economy. I think that’s going to be a big piece of it because the recovery, although significant, has been slow. And, sadly for many who were cut out during the recession, they have not recovered. It is those people and people who are insecure about their jobs and their finances that candidates have to appeal to because that crosses party lines. They are going to have to show empathy for those people and have some very good ideas about how to make it better.
Opportunist: The Washington Post reported that Sen. Bernie Sanders had nearly matched Hillary Clinton in fundraising dollars during the third quarter, bringing in $26 million to her $28 million. Does this mean his message is gaining traction?
Ruth Sherman: I do think Sanders has been able to do on the left what Trump has done on the right: tap into long-held frustrations of the electorate. He is giving voice to what nobody else is willing to talk about because they either feel it’s not politically correct or they are fearful of offending a large swath of their donor base. What he has done communication-wise is make people think he is on their side and preach that if government worked more to favor the middle class versus the wealthy, and if it weren’t for all these obstructionists standing in the way—Wall Street money and favoritism—then all would be right with the world. The problem with his message is how is he going to get these types of changes in the law passed? If he becomes a threat to Hillary Clinton, who is kind of the frontrunner, that is the question he is going to have to answer and we actually may see that in the upcoming debates.
I also think it’s interesting that if you go to his website you will see his position on almost every policy. It’s just the greatest stuff—red meat that people in the right wing want from their people. Vermont is a hunting state, so his position on guns is not liberal. He makes a very good case about the difference between rural gun owners and city gun owners, but how do you create a policy that works for the whole country and not just Vermont where hunting is a big part of the recreation? Bernie Sanders is not above pandering. None of them are. I will be interested to see how he addresses that.
Opportunist: Can Hillary Clinton overcome the bad press she has received around her missing emails?
Ruth Sherman: The situation with the emails makes people perceive her as unforthcoming and untrustworthy. To her credit, her message about herself is that she is experienced, knows all the world leaders and has been at this for a long time. She is an advocate for women and has a track record to prove it. However, you kind of don’t want somebody in the Oval Office whom you cannot trust. But they all lie. We know that they all prevaricate and obfuscate and put their fingers up to the wind to see which way it’s blowing. Sadly that’s what they have to do to make headway at this level. I wish they didn’t.
Opportunist: Do you have any other books in the works?
Ruth Sherman: I don’t, but I will tell you that I am thinking of writing a book called ‘The Trump Effect.’
Leslie Stone is an award-winning writer, editor and journalist with more than two decades of experience covering business, finance, real estate and lifestyle issues for newspapers, magazines and online publications. Originally from Virginia, she currently resides between Florida and Michigan. Follow Leslie on Twitter: @lescstone.
Follow Ruth Sherman on Twitter: @RuthSherman
Ruth Sherman’s Website
Watch Ruth Sherman on CBS New York