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A Tale of Two Elections!
by Craig Harrison

The phone message was long distance. 

They had found me on the Internet. 

A father in Whittier, California (where our thirty-seventh president, Richard Milhous Nixon, grew up and attended college), was helping his high school-aged daughter prepare a campaign speech for her run at student body president.

Could I, the professional coach and communication consultant, give him some pointers for coaching his daughter?  I was happy to oblige.

In fact, it was a pleasure. I waived my usual fee, feeling civic pride at the ability to make a difference in a young person’s life. Who knows, in a few more years she might become the next Jr. Senator for NY…

I spent 30 minutes on the phone discussing speech structure, opening lines, the psychology of communication, past winning speeches and why they won, and even arranging for his daughter to give a practice speech at local Toastmasters clubs in Orange County.

I referenced Dr. Martin Luther King, Winston Churchill, Oprah Winfrey, the late Barbara Jordan, Elizabeth Dole, and of course, the great communicator, President Ronald Reagan. I cited several wonderful books on great speeches of our times.

His daughter had a distinguished record of victories in student politics. A former class president at various levels, active in various clubs and associations, she was credentialed beyond belief. Her record at such a young age was more impressive than many adults’!

I was touched by this father’s love for his daughter and supportiveness. (I was also struck by the irony of a father in Whittier seeking advice from a coach in the PRB — The Peoples' Republic of Berkeley.) All I asked was for a letter of appreciation once the election was over.

A week went by and then two, and still I hadn’t heard back.  Finally I called the father to learn what happened. I knew she had been running against another girl and a boy. 

I could hear the embarrassment when he realized it was me. My worst fears were about to be realized.

The father explained what had happened:

“My daughter and the other girl presented themselves with poise, articulation, preparation and pizzazz... very cute... I thought for sure it'd be between the two girls...

"Then the boy took the stage and said things like "IF ELECTED, I'll EXTEND THE LUNCH AND RECESSES, FIRE THE TEACHERS, HAVE MORE DANCES, ALLOW KISSING AT SCHOOL," etc.  He was dressed in yesterday’s clothes... hair a mess... but he made the crowd go crazy with applause and stole the show.

"My daughter and the other little girl were on the stage with their jaws on the ground.  So ultimately it was a popularity contest that my daughter lost (being a pretty popular kid)..."

She was defeated and I was deflated.

Our strategy had been sound.  Her approach was proper.  Her intentions were true.   Never mind that the boy's promises were out of his control to deliver.  He had followed one of the basics of presentations: give the audience what they want, tell them what they want to hear, and be their hero.

The father continued:

"so I'm very proud of her and the other girl as they both ran an exceptional campaign (with your help).  We both thank you very much. You added a very nice touch to her speech and she presented it perfectly.  THANK YOU SO VERY MUCH!!!"

I believe there can be dignity in losing and this is one example.  The responsible candidate lost but kept her integrity.  Sometimes life is a popularity contest. Sometimes too, not selling out is something to be proud of.

But, as a speech coach I was devastated. She’d won numerous elections without my help. When I tried to help, she lost. I was clearly missing the Midas touch.

Sadly, even in high school races, it seems the candidate who tells people what they want to hear gets their votes. Self-interest wins out again.

That’s basically the end of the story. Except, that a year later, again early in the evening, opportunity called again. This time a political consultant was calling on behalf of a client who needed coaching in accent reduction.

Still smarting from my last coaching experience, I respectfully declined.

In retrospect, Kal-EEEEEEEE-For-N-Ya might b a very different state had I in fact agreed to help Ahhh-nold.

© Copyright 2002 by Craig Harrison. All Rights Reserved.

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