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Good rhetoric in digital formats

What you can learn about effective public speaking from today's speeches by the candidates for the CDU party presidency.

As a party-politically neutral observer, I followed the speeches of Armin Laschet, Friedrich Merz and Norbert Röttgen at the CDU's first fully digital party conference this morning with great interest. At the end of the speeches and even before the vote, it was clear to me that from a rhetorical point of view there was one clear winner: Armin Laschet. Many will say that most of the 1001 delegates made their decision long ago, not on the basis of the speeches, but on the basis of their convictions or camp affiliations. That may be, but the last perhaps 10 percent of the undecideds can be won over with a good performance or lost to a competitor with a weak performance.

Only Armin Laschet observed three rules of rhetoric that apply generally, but are particularly important in digital formats:

First point: if a full room can't be brought to a boil, you shouldn't try.

Merz and Röttgen spoke as if you were standing in front of a full hall - appealing, getting louder, quickly. That was not only pointless, because the reaction naturally failed to materialize, it was also counterproductive. Alone at home in front of a monitor, this kind of lecture comes across as exhausting at best and pretentious at worst. This rhetoric can only work if every thought is loudly cheered and confirmed by the enthusiastic audience. In the virtual room, you are, so to speak, two people with the speaker. Here, you don't want to hear any roll calls or be shouted at. Armin Laschet spoke quietly, made pauses and thus created intimacy and closeness - as far as that is possible in this format. First point for him.

Second point: In 15 minutes on the screen, what matters is not completeness, but a few clear messages

If the 1001 delegates had been in the hall and perceived the speeches with all their senses, their attention might have been great enough to absorb a longer speech with many aspects and topics well. In the digital world, that doesn't work. So clarity, brevity and conciseness are even more important than usual. Again, the point goes to Armin Laschet. His three messages were clear to me:

  • As the only one of the three of us to hold an important political office at the moment, I know how to not only talk about big issues, but also implement them every day. He gave the vivid example of the coal phase-out, which he not only had to help pass in Berlin, but then also teach the coal industry workers on the ground.
  • Yes, I stand for "business as usual," but we're also doing well in Germany, so that's not the worst thing. That was clever, because you wouldn't have believed him to be the great reformer anyway. So it was better to make a virtue of the supposed need and talk "straight," as he himself put it.
  • Trust is the most important thing in a political office, and that applies all the more in times of crisis. You can trust me. This was his most important message, and he backed it up with a very personal story - more on that in a moment.

Of course, Merz and Röttgen also tried to convey messages. Röttgen wanted to portray himself as the modernizer, but remained too cautious about it and didn't really say what he wanted to do differently. In addition, he worked on the three letters "C," "D" and "U" in order to attach all the important issues to them and to stroke the party soul. Not much really stuck. I remember even less of Friedrich Merz's speech. He wants to be an economic and political expert, promote women more than one might think and make strong demands on himself and the party - too little, too pale, too unclear.

Third point: If you want to arouse emotions, you have to tell stories and reveal something about yourself.

This last rule is the most important and applies in all formats. Personal stories, images that arise in the mind, move us and remain in our memories. In all three introductory short films, the candidates each said what their name was, how old they were, that they were married and how many children they had. Good to know, but not really personal.

Only Armin Laschet takes the opportunity to tell the story of his father, a miner who had to work hard underground and who didn't care what his buddies looked like or what religion they had, the main thing was that you could rely on them. The miner underground is not a new and not a particularly original story, but it fits the times: even in crises we have to stick together and rely on each other in the fight against the virus. Besides, it is now his family story and it is what it is. The badge that the miner hangs on the hook after his return stands for hope, trust and for having returned safely. At the end of his speech, he stands next to the lectern, pulls his father's badge out of his pocket, holds it up to the camera, and says his father gave it to him for today with the words, "Tell people you can be trusted." Wow, I wouldn't have believed Armin Laschet - to be honest. The pathos was just appropriate to reinforce his message. Kudos. You have to be brave to dare to do something like that. The effort paid off and convinced 521 delegates at their screens.

About the author

Dr. Sebastian Tschentscher finds the best digital minds for your company with his executive search boutique "Digital Minds".

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