Six reasons John McCain was an unforgettable speaker

By Greg Dardis / Guest Column

As our nation laid Sen. John McCain to rest, world leaders searched for the right words to pay him tribute. They were striving for a talent the late war hero had demonstrated again and again: the abil­ity to stir a crowd with an impassioned speech.

The scope of McCain’s 81 years is remarkable, especially the five and a half years he spent as a prisoner of war in North Vietnam. But what made him so effective as a public servant was his ability to change minds and touch hearts through pub­lic speaking. His legacy is largely defined by the memorable addresses he gave.

As a public-speaking coach, I was compelled to evaluate those speeches. Here are six reasons his words commanded our attention:

1) He was a consummate storyteller. McCain did not give dry political addresses; he recounted engaging narratives.

In his acceptance speech at the 2008 Republi­can National Convention, where McCain claimed his party’s endorsement as its presidential candi­date, he put his life in a historical context through vivid anecdotes. “When I was five years old,” he said, “a car pulled up in front of our house. A Navy officer rolled down the window and shouted at my father that the Japanese had bombed Pearl Har­bor. I rarely saw my father again for four years.”

2) He understood the power of a short sen­tence. Some politicians get lost in grandiose lan­guage, but McCain knew a few choice words can deliver a strong punch. He embraced repetition and plain, declarative statements to earn trust. “I won’t let you down,” he said repeatedly in his ac­ceptance speech. “I fight for you.”

3) He took his time. McCain set his own pac­ing, and his speeches included a mix of fiery pas­sages and gentle, measured cadences. This was evident last year when he took to the Senate floor shortly after his brain-cancer diagnosis to help Re­publican leadership begin debate on health care.

“We’re getting nothing done,” he admonished his colleagues. “Let’s trust each other. Let’s return to regular order.”

He was not rushed. He articulated each word with great care and impeccable pacing.

4) He was credible. McCain spoke with both authority and humility. This unique blend was possible because of his life story and his hum­ble demeanor. Listening to the late senator, one didn’t question his motives or agenda. It was ob­vious he served a broader interest.

“I don’t work for a party,” he said in his accep­tance speech. “I don’t work for a special interest. I don’t work for myself. I work for you.”

5) He was good on the fly. McCain didn’t cling to a transcript but responded to a crowd. He skillfully quieted the RNC audience when crazed fans threatened to derail him, using the moment to make a broader point. “Please, please, please. Please don’t be diverted by the ground noise and the static. Americans want us to stop yelling at each other, OK?”

This ability was demonstrated throughout the campaign. A woman at a town-hall meeting once said she didn’t trust then-Sen. Barack Obama be­cause “he’s an Arab.”

McCain didn’t miss a beat, refuting the state­ment respectfully but unequivocally. “No, ma’am. No, ma’am. He’s a decent, family man…” He not only handled the moment masterfully, but stood up for his beliefs, refusing to stoop to the rhetoric.

6) He always issued a call to action. This is where we often miss the mark. Every public ad­dress should contain a clear call to action. The au­dience – whether it is a board of directors or a few colleagues in an office – should leave knowing, without a doubt, what is being asked of them.

McCain did this every time. Vote for me, he pleaded in his campaign speeches. Support this new president, he urged the nation in his conces­sion address. Grow up, he scolded the senate.

John McCain was inimitable. But if we heed these six public-speaking practices, we too will command attention.

Greg Dardis is the CEO of Dardis Communications, based in Coralville. For more information, visit