Why a 7-Minute Speech Catapulted Mario Cuomo into Lasting Fame

With the death of former New York Governor Mario Cuomo last week, the nation lost a liberal champion whose keynote speech at the Democratic National Convention in 1984 electrified the country and catapulted him into everlasting fame. Many felt the speech stole the thunder of Walter Mondale, the Democratic Presidential nominee.

We can learn valuable lessons in how to capture an audience in this video of that landmark speech.

A Shining City on a Hill

Gov. Mario Cuomo 1932 – 2015

Governor Cuomo appropriated President Regan’s theme of America as a “shining city on a hill” and made it his own. Rather than a shining city, Mr. Cuomo claimed we were living a tale of two cities – the rich and the poor.

Conventioneers are notorious for talking while speakers are at the podium. Who can blame them when so many speeches are bland and boring? But within a few minutes Mr. Cuomo captivated the thousands in attendance and had them cheering.

How Did He Do It?

Mr. Cuomo exemplified the following qualities and techniques – maybe they were planned or maybe they were spontaneous — though that’s doubtful. Great speakers prepare for great speeches.

  • He was authentic. Mr. Cuomo believed in what he was saying. He wasn’t playing to his “base,” as many current day politicians do, even if what they say is not what they believe.
  • He was passionate. He grabbed you by the throat with his impassioned delivery. That’s what the audience might have felt before they even absorbed his words. He connected with their emotions.
  • He used pauses effectively. He was not afraid to pause and let the audience catch up with a point he was making. Inserting pauses in your presentations creates anticipation for what you’re going to say next.
  • He told a story. Great speakers are great storytellers. He told the tale of two cities – one for the rich, in his view, and one for the poor, who would get a fighting chance under a Democratic president.1101860602_400
  • He compared and contrasted. Over and over he compared how the rich live in contrast to the poor. Addressing the incumbent repeatedly as “Mr. President,” the former governor was poetic in describing the people in the other city as “…the faces you don’t see and the places you don’t visit.”
  • He varied his tone and volume. Too many speakers think they will command the audience’s attention and agreement by almost shouting at full volume throughout their talks. Instead, Mr. Cuomo skillfully built to a crescendo for his most important points and had the crowd on their feet.
  • He kept it short. In just seven minutes, Governor Cuomo made history and immediately became a Presidential contender himself. Contrast that to Bill Clinton’s lengthy keynote at the Democratic convention four years later. Former NBC anchor Tom Brokaw was quoted then as saying, “He droned on and on…and when he finally said ‘In conclusion,’ people began to cheer.”

Not every speaker can be a Mario Cuomo, who had a special gift. But you can become much better with advance preparation, an authentic belief in what you’re saying and by engaging the audience not only with words but by touching their emotions.

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