Monday, May 22, 2006

To speak or not to speak

A "scheduler" on a political campaign is the person who handles the candidate's public schedule, including accepting or declining invitations, giving the candidate transportation directions to the event, or assigning the event to a surrogate.

On big campaigns, such as statewide or congressional elections, scheduling is a full-time position -- in fact, on large campaigns, there may be a scheduling department. However, on downballot races, scheduling is often handled by the already busy campaign manager, or else handed off to very junior staff (interns and volunteers) who wind up in charge of running the candidate's schedule, without clear guidelines on which engagements to accept and which to decline.

Rob Cottingham, a progressive speechwriter and president of Social Signal has a great list of 7 reasons NOT to give a speech in today's Speechlist newsletter. In campaigns where the scheduler is flying blind, Rob's list forms the basis of a good set of working criteria for how to evaluate speaking invitations. With Rob's permission, I am reproducing an excerpt of his article here:
I'd love to tell you there's some foolproof algorithm to tell you whether your client's future holds a standing ovation or a pratfall. But there isn't. Here's what you can do.

Figure out - subjectively - two things.

One, cost versus benefit.

Consider the cost of accepting the invitation: your time, the speaker's time, research time, travel costs, attention distracted from other things.

Balance that against the benefit: everything from prestige to goodwill to the ability to convey a message you need to deliver – all measured against the organization's strategic communications goals.

Number two, risk versus opportunity.

What could go wrong, from embarrassment to hostility? And what do you get if everything goes right, from great media coverage to a big new sale?

Compare those two pictures. If you're travelling a huge distance to deliver a speech that will take weeks to write on a topic your client barely cares about ... to a crowd of thirty belligerent cranks at an event that the media wouldn't cover if they all spontaneously combusted... this might not be the event for you.

Here are seven reasons why you may not want your client to head to the podium.

1. The event's too low-profile

A leader's time is valuable. Staff time is valuable. If you're using it for an event that won't get you the payoff you need, that's a mistake. And the profile of the event reflects on your speaker, too; if you're doing parking lot openings, that sends a signal to others who might invite you.

2. The event's too high-profile

Sometimes you need to keep your head down, whether it's because of legal difficulties, PR problems or an impending major announcement. If your organization is following a low-ball strategy, then a leader's speech to a high-profile event may not be a great idea.

3. The wrong audience

Maybe these folks are hostile, maybe they're aching to hear something you just can't tell them, but there are some audiences you just don't want to talk to.

That said, there are times when you can actually get a lot of credit for bearding the lion in its den. You'll get grudging respect from your opponents, and props from the media for having the nerve to show up.

4. The wrong agenda

They have your speaker scheduled too late in the day to get coverage. Or right before a huge, contentious resolution debate that has them distracted. Or on a panel with someone you simply don't want to be associated with. These can all be deal-breakers if the convenor isn't willing to budge.

5. The wrong timing

I can't tell you how many invitations I've seen for hour-long speeches, or 45-minute speeches with 15-minute Q-and-A sessions. Short of some very special circumstances – say, if you're writing for Steve Jobs at the MacWorld keynote –
don't do that to your speaker. They'll have a bored, restless audience and a long, meandering speech. If you can't negotiate the time down, that's a deal-breaker.

6. The wrong messenger

You don't always have to send the CEO, senator, president or board coordinator. Sometimes an event is better suited to a staff analyst, a board member or a vice-president in charge of a specialized area.

7. A better opportunity

This is my favourite. Being able to tell a boss or client, "I don't want you taking this gig, because there's this much better one at the same time" -- that's golden.

Those are all solid reasons not to accept an invitation. But when it comes time for you to make your choice, let me make my pitch for erring on the side of yes. Speeches are a chance to connect with an audience, build a relationship, maybe move them to action -- and there's nothing like the opportunity to lead.
Rob wasn't writing this for a campaign audience specifically ,but the same principles still apply -- and this list could have saved several campaigns I've watched from wasted time and embarassment.

One other quick note on junior staff and scheduling: a candidate's schedule is too tight to waste time on bad directions. Do your candidate a favor and make sure the person assigned to this task is a local with a good knowledge of area roads, OR, someone with good navigation skills who can use modern navigation tools well and will be able to give directions over the phone to a lost candidate.

Rob's newsletter Speechlist is quite good and I recommend it to anyone who is writing or delivering speeches in the course of your work; to subscribe, just click on this link (or copy and paste it into your web browser):

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