December 18, 2015
How to Own the Stump Speech

And I mean that literally.

The best way to deliver the stump speech is to totally make it your own. There are several great ways to do that. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

What is a stump speech?

Most people know them from the world of politics. It’s the speech a candidate delivers repeatedly, with little variation, at appearances along the campaign trail. Our presidential candidates are stumping right now. It’s very prevalent, so much so that we often know what our elected and want-to-be-electeds are going to say before they open their mouths.

The name comes from that use, actually. Nineteenth century politicians would actually cut down a tree in towns they were campaigning in, so they could then stand on the stump to make their rehearsed appeal to the community.

In corporate communications, the idea’s the same (minus the tree). The stump speech consists largely of the latest set of messages from corporate headquarters that are sent out to comms professionals like myself to trot out at press association events, community town hall-style meetings, trade shows — wherever it makes sense.

The inherent issue here, as you may have picked up, is that different audiences listen for different reasons. You can’t talk to everyone like they represent The Public and treat them like one group. That, and stump speeches as written tend to be kind of dry.

So without further ado, here's what I do to make the dry corporate stump speech my own:

1. Play to your audience

Like I said, you can’t talk to everyone like they’re the same. The Los Angeles Rotary Club can’t commiserate with you about how cold a winter Detroit’s having. But they can relate to the hot November we just got out of. Nor can they relate to how bad the Detroit Lions are playing, but they can relate to not having a local team (at least, as of today).

How to Own the Stump Speech

It’s cliché to open with “How about this weather we’re having?” but the underlying sentiment isn’t: pander to your audience. You can talk about local culture, events, challenges, prominent personalities, how much has changed since the last time you spoke to them — anything to break this generic speech out of its generalities.

This can also lean nicely into certain aspects of your corporate messaging. The LA Rotary, for example, may be particularly interested to know that California EV drivers have single-driver HOV lane access through 2019. It’s great when hitting your point and targeting your audience are the same thing.

2. Get personal

Legal status notwithstanding, companies aren’t people. They don’t look like people, they don’t talk like people and the updates they have for you don’t even remotely resemble the updates people usually have. Can you imagine Sharon from down the street letting you know her gross revenue has seen double-digit growth this quarter?

Conversely, you are a person. You sound like a person, and the things you say can be personal, if you let them.

For example, my wife Lori drives a Volt. She loves it. On an unrelated note, I help sell Volts. So you’d better believe every time something in the stump speech mentions something amazing about the Volt — like how most 2016 Volt owners are expected to go more than 1,000 miles between fill-ups through regular charging — I bring it back to Lori’s experience with her car. The gasps and smiles are great when I recount how the 20,000 miles or she has driven to-date have taken no more than five tanks of gas. Folks always ask “How is that possible?” And then “How can I get one?”

How to Own the Stump Speech

3. Show and tell

I know I’m a pretty face (well, mine’s actually a better fit for radio), but even I have difficulty commanding attention without something to bring my words to life.

I’m lucky enough to have a great team that pulls together visually captivating presentations to accompany what I’m saying, and I use them to do just that. But even if you don’t have a team, simple graphs and graphics can convey your thoughts often better than you words can, and a few simple slides can add a lot of color to the messaging from corporate.

For example, here’s how I used visuals to find some common ground when I guest lectured at The Ohio State University (as background, I’m a Spartan from Michigan State):

How to Own the Stump Speech

I opened with a little gentle ribbing...

How to Own the Stump Speech

...and closed with something we all agreed with—"Beat the Wolverines" (our common enemy)

And here's how I show the excitement we build at music festivals like Coachella:


One important tip: keep the words in your mouth and off the slide. If people have to read your visual, then they're not listening to you.

4. Don't eat before you talk

I mean, don’t starve yourself, but don’t have a big meal either. I’ve had to squelch Coke burps during a speech before. And you don’t want your stomach grumbling so loud that the mic picks up the noise because you had to scarf down your rubber chicken lunch too quickly. Profit from my mistakes.

5. Don't be afraid to tighten it up

When you work for a big, big company like I do, the stump speech can be rather long. There’s tons of messaging your headquarters will suggest you cover. And I’m not suggesting you cut any of the really important messaging out.

However, as important as putting a face to the brand and getting the messages across is, being available to your audience to answer questions is key too. As best as possible, keep your remarks to 20 minutes and leave plenty of time for your audience to ask you things.

How to Own the Stump Speech

Never forget, if they just wanted the messages, they could’ve just gone to the corporate site. They invited you because they want a human. And frankly, the Q&A session is your best chance to let your personality come out and really get to the heart of what your audience might really be interested in.

And make sure you study your subject well so you actually can answer questions. This is a stump speech, not a stumped speech.

6. Don't let this be the first time you've told this speech

Know the speech and know the topic before you take the podium. Rehearse it in front of your spouse. Rehearse it in front of your dog. I always try to rehearse in front of a mirror and dim the room lights so I can approximate the speaking environment (that also means no reading glasses). Especially if you’re a nervous public speaker, you don’t want to bump into any word for the first time when you’re already in front of the crowd.

Rehearsing the speech will also make you feel more relaxed, which will come through in your body language. You want to be loose enough to use your hands in a natural and engaging way, which only comes when you’re not worried about being tripped up by your words.

Another key—at least for me—is script formatting. I like large, boldfaced fonts so I can see the words without having to squint or use the old guy’s reading glasses I mentioned before. Of course, the more you know your talk, the less you will have to stare at the page. That reinforces the importance of knowing your subject matter and the value of rehearsal.

7. Be funny

This is a tough one, but key.

Stump speeches rarely (read: never) have jokes in them. Companies just don’t like to tell them. There are too many variables. Everyone has a different sense of humor, and you never know who you could unintentionally offend.

How to Own the Stump Speech

On the other side of that, if you don’t do something to ensure your audience stays engaged, you might as well not be talking at all. Being boring is a sin, and ultimately, you want people to like you. You want people to like your employer and your brand. More importantly, your employer wants people to like your employer and their brand.

Don’t be afraid to take some risks. Nothing off color, nothing at the expense of your host. It can even be hokey or groan inducing. Just try to be a little funny so your audience doesn’t regret having come.

When I talk to local civic groups, like a Rotary Club chapter, I usually tell the story of my very first stump speech when I had to travel to Columbus, Ohio and was asked to sing a song. I was stumped. The first thing that came to mind was the Michigan State fight song, which I belted out as loud as I could. I survived the mistake for the moment, but for obvious reasons was never invited back.

So there you have it. Those are my tips for giving stump speeches from many years of doing enough of these to know. If you have any specific questions about a speech you have coming up, or follow-up on one of the points I’ve covered here, shoot me a message.

And break a leg.