Good speeches come about because the speaker has something significant to convey or propose. Great speeches can also come about surrounding an event, an occasion, or a moment in time. Mediocre speeches, however, come about once a year.
I’m referring to the annual “state of the city” speech, which mayors nationwide are compelled — either by city charter, chamber of commerce, campaign cycle, or ego — to deliver. These speeches are typically full of milestones, budget numbers, and lofty rhetoric, but often lack honest assessments or tangible forward-looking goals. The season in California kicks off this second week of January (Mayor Sanders in San Diego is first up on Wednesday), so it seems an appropriate time to revisit some of the basic rules of speechwriting and how they might apply to summing up the condition of our major municipalities.
The first thing I ask of anyone giving a speech — and this is especially important for mayors and elected officials — is: Who are you talking to? Who is your audience?
The answer varies for mayors at this time of year. The target audience may be the city’s residents. It may be political officials and opinion leaders. Depending upon the budget situation, the audience could be city staff or police and fire personnel. Take Mayor Chuck Reed of San Jose last year; he directly addressed the public safety employees in a frank and sober way, saying that San Jose’s “police officers and firefighters regularly take risks to protect this city from physical harm. Now we are calling upon them to help save us from fiscal harm.”
Whatever the answer, giving thought to the audience one hopes to address helps a speaker better understand why he or she is standing in front of a podium in the first place, rather than writing a press release or an email.
Now that I’ve mentioned the podium, we should probably consider the council members, city attorney, other elected officials and community leaders there on the stage with you (not to mention the members of the press, if your town still has one or two of those). If they’ve all been called together and called away from their daily routines on this cold winter morning, you’d better have something worthwhile to put on paper and into the microphone. That’s why, before even starting to write a state of the city speech, I ask: what is it you want to say?
During the course of my eight years as a newspaper reporter, I always knew at deadline hour whether I’d write a great story or mediocre one by asking myself what it was I was trying to say. If I knew, I could write easily. If I did not know what I wanted to say, I was paralyzed at the keyboard. The same is true of those giving speeches. If you don’t know what you want to say, your speech won’t convey much.
Last year, Mayor Ashley Swearengin in Fresno did a good job of summarizing, upfront for her audience, what she intended the city to focus on in the coming year, outlining four “big rocks” that would command her attention.
Former Anaheim Mayor Curt Pringle was also good at this in his multiple state of the city addresses, outlining tangible new programs he would spearhead, such as in 2009 when he declared he would launch a water recycling and reclamation initiative. He did this each year in office.
The third piece of free advice I’ll give to California mayors is more of a caution: Be careful not to present your annual state of the city speech as a public opinion poll on your job performance.
It’s too easy to dig back into campaign promises and past state of the city speeches to recount programs that were proposed and lines that were drawn in the sand. Worst-case scenario, you have not fulfilled those promised or successfully launched those programs, and so are encouraging your audience to envision a referendum on your tenure in office. Best-case scenario, you have a stellar record of accomplishment and nothing to fear, but are missing the crux of your speech opportunity; it would be like filling your wedding toast as a best man with details of your own childhood transgressions.
This speech is neither about your satisfaction with the job of mayor nor (hopefully) residents’ satisfaction with your performance — it is about the state of the city you are leading, and the quality of life there. So if you outline multiple city programs, try hard to make each relate to the average citizen’s daily life.
Mayor Villaraigosa gave us a good example last April of how not to do that, and how many times is too many to say the phrases “six years ago” and “when I took office.” He also showed us that it is too easy to fall into rhetoric, lacking specifics and, therefore, oomph.
Allow me to tie a small ribbon on this piece of commentary by talking policy. It is clear that Californians in every corner of our state care, in 2012, about job creation and the economy. (Take a look at the December Public Policy Institute of California survey to see that 63 percent of Californians name that the No. 1 issue.) They have a low opinion of government and of politics. Smart mayors will understand this and use it to their advantage in their state of the city speeches. That means pointing their fingers at skyrocketing pension costs and Sacramento gridlock, while pointing their initiatives toward economic development.
A cardinal rule of speech structure, according to William Safire, is to “tell ‘em what you told ‘em,” so I’ll summarize to say that the annual state of the city speech can surpass mediocre if mayors remember who they are speaking to, put something of substance in their remarks and agenda, and use caution not to make the speech about themselves, but about the city and its residents.
If all else fails, be sure to tell a good joke.
Jeff Barker is a writer and political advisor at www.theBarkerWordworks.com.