About the Author

Beth Fukumoto

Beth Fukumoto served three terms in the Hawaii House of Representatives. She was the youngest woman in the U.S. to lead a major party in a legislature, the first elected Republican to switch parties after Donald Trump’s election, and a Democratic congressional candidate. Currently, she works as a political commentator and teaches leadership and ethics at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. Opinions are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Civil Beat’s views. You can reach her by email at bfukumoto@civilbeat.org.

Captivating speeches should compel the audience to do something about a collective problem or continue acting on a successful solution.

The start of the Hawaii State Legislature ushers in a week of elected officials’ ritualistic speeches outlining policy announcements and legislative priorities for the coming year.

Coverage of the policies introduced in legislative leaders’ opening day remarks and the governor’s State of the State address is abundant. Infrastructure and housing are Gov. Josh Green’s “top statewide priority.” The Senate president plans to improve food security through farm-to-school programs. The speaker of the House wants to ensure that “the needs of local people come first.” 

While sound policies and evidence-based solutions should be the backbone of a politician’s statements, political speeches – especially these big ones – do more than deliver information. During my tenure in the state House, I gave three opening day speeches. In addition to introducing my caucus’ priorities, each speech was an opportunity to show the audience why we cared and set the tone for our engagement in the upcoming session.

Crafting these speeches requires accurately assessing your audience and strategically developing a persuasive argument that will resonate with that audience to lay the groundwork for collective action. Through the process of drafting my remarks, I learned many dos and don’ts. These five are the most important for both delivering and decoding political speeches. 

You Can’t Escape Context

As a speaker, you need to know the situation you’re in. Understanding the political climate, the audience’s anxieties, and what’s happening in the world allows you to tailor your voice, ensuring your message lands with your audience. 

In each of their speeches, the governor, Senate president, and House speaker centered their remarks on Maui’s devastating fires and the exacerbated issues of housing, health care, and environmental protection. Their policy announcements were linked mainly to these issues that apply to Lahaina’s current crises and the state’s ongoing needs.

As a listener, peeling back the layers of context can help decipher the speaker’s intentions or the pressures they’re facing. For example, if polls suggest that the cost of living will impact the next election, you can bet politicians will start discussing solutions in their speeches.

Gov. Josh Green arrives to a standing ovation before delivering the state of the state address Monday, Jan. 22, 2024, in Honolulu. Gov. Green highlighted affordable housing, Maui recovery, homelessness, health care, education among other items he’ll present to the legislature this session. (Kevin Fujii/Civil Beat/2024)
In his address, Gov. Josh Green acknowledged there was dissent around his emergency housing proclamation for Maui, but he also defended his initial action. (Kevin Fujii/Civil Beat/2024)

There Must Be A Call To Action

Captivating speeches should compel the audience to do something about a collective problem or continue acting on a successful solution. Most speakers will have an explicit call to action that’s the central theme of their speech.

House Speaker Scott Saiki closed his opening day speech, stating, “Hawaii requires much of us, and we can together do our part.” Later, in her remarks, House Minority Leader Lauren Matsumoto calls on her colleagues to lead with “kindness and respect.”

While calls to action are most commonly the closing line of a speech, implicit calls should be scattered throughout. Stories and emotional appeals push audiences to actively participate in the speaker’s vision, making explicit calls to action more likely to succeed.  

Sharing a vulnerability, a struggle, or a moment of triumph can instantly bridge the gap and create empathy.

Supporters, Opponents And Those In Between

For better or worse (usually worse), being part of a tribe tends to motivate people. So, most speakers outline “in-groups” and “out-groups” when calling people to action in their speeches.

Saiki spent a significant portion of his opening day remarks introducing new House members, recognizing community members, and praising individual House members for their participation in various House working groups. The audience he focuses on, the in-group he creates, appears to be legislative insiders and active community members. He later expands that group by stating that the House will put the needs of local people first after citing an ongoing incursion of outside interests, his out-group, on the state.

Green exercised this concept differently when addressing his “Emergency Proclamation Relating To Housing,” working to draw those who opposed the proclamation back into his in-group.  

“Make no mistake. I know I ruffled a few feathers when we took this action, but we have to provide housing for our local people,” he begins, acknowledging his dissenters yet defending his initial action. Then, he continues by recognizing their concerns and pointing out his effort to compromise through an updated proclamation to “build more affordable housing while protecting our precious natural and cultural resources and preserving the unique character of Hawaii.”

House of Representative Speaker Scott Saiki gives Senate President Ron Kouchi a lei after Gov. Josh Green’s state of the state address Monday, Jan. 22, 2024, in Honolulu. Kouchi joked about not receiving a lei when introduced.  (Kevin Fujii/Civil Beat/2024)
Senate President Ron Kouchi walked the line between policy and personal well-being on opening day when he announced the Senate’s plan to expand access to pre-K while sharing his own family’s decisions around child care. (Kevin Fujii/Civil Beat/2024)

A Personal Connection Is The Quickest Path To Credibility

While a laundry list of accomplishments might seem like the best way to establish credibility, it often leaves audiences feeling disconnected from the topic or the speaker. Sharing a vulnerability, a struggle, or a moment of triumph can instantly bridge the gap and create empathy.

Of course, oversharing or using personal stories as a smokescreen for a lack of substance can backfire. The key is to find the right balance and develop an emotional connection with your audience without sacrificing the weight of policy and experience. 

Senate President Ron Kouchi walked that line well on opening day when he announced the Senate’s plan to expand access to pre-K. While he articulated the state’s need clearly, he illustrated the need for a solution by describing a FaceTime call with his grandson, who is now in his wife’s care full time. His wife’s decision to focus on child care involved a sacrifice that, he says, other families are also forced to make. He speaks directly to those families and says, “You can count on me.”

Delivery Will Make Or Break Your Impact

Last but not least, speakers need to remember that delivery starts when you step on stage. Everything from your gait, posture, and gestures to your voice’s pitch, pace, and volume affects how your words will land with your audience.

Again, Kouchi does this well with an uncanny ability to transition between serious and casual tones instantly. Very few speakers can successfully wedge a Martin Luther King Jr. quote about the “fierce urgency of now” between the words “good food waiting” and “I’ll shut up.”

By following these five rules, speakers can deliver more effective speeches. But, more importantly, as listeners, we can use these rules to better understand how politicians’ speeches are impacting us. In doing so, we have the opportunity to be more discerning about which calls to action we actually want to take up and less likely to get caught up in pure rhetoric.


Read this next:

HECO-Backed Bill Would Help Protect Utilities From Litigation Over Wildfire Damage


Local reporting when you need it most

Support timely, accurate, independent journalism.

Honolulu Civil Beat is a nonprofit organization, and your donation helps us produce local reporting that serves all of Hawaii.

Contribute

About the Author

Beth Fukumoto

Beth Fukumoto served three terms in the Hawaii House of Representatives. She was the youngest woman in the U.S. to lead a major party in a legislature, the first elected Republican to switch parties after Donald Trump’s election, and a Democratic congressional candidate. Currently, she works as a political commentator and teaches leadership and ethics at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. Opinions are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Civil Beat’s views. You can reach her by email at bfukumoto@civilbeat.org.


Latest Comments (0)

If political speech is important, how in the world did Biden get 81 million votes to become president?

elrod · 2 weeks ago

Maybe with proper rhetorical coaching, Lucy might still be pulling the football away from Charlie Brown... but it seems that the reservoir of naïveté & trust of our electorate had already been drained.A call to action tends to fall on deaf ears here anymore. For the majority of our middle class, who pay their taxes, follow up on their bills, comply with laws, clean up after themselves, watch over their family & property, act fairly and even charitably, but feel invisible or undervalued (esp. when compared with folks who don't seem to believe or follow those precepts), yet another call for their effort & altruism really won't inspire. Honesty might, though.

Kamanulai · 2 weeks ago

Rhetoric is definitely a lost art. These days, it's all about sticking to the script, cya, and kissing up to your colleagues.

ndhwn · 2 weeks ago

Join the conversation

About IDEAS

IDEAS is the place you'll find essays, analysis and opinion on every aspect of life and public affairs in Hawaii. We want to showcase smart ideas about the future of Hawaii, from the state's sharpest thinkers, to stretch our collective thinking about a problem or an issue. Email news@civilbeat.org to submit an idea.

Mahalo!

You're officially signed up for our daily newsletter, the Morning Beat. A confirmation email will arrive shortly.

In the meantime, we have other newsletters that you might enjoy. Check the boxes for emails you'd like to receive.

  • What's this? Be the first to hear about important news stories with these occasional emails.
  • What's this? You'll hear from us whenever Civil Beat publishes a major project or investigation.
  • What's this? Get our latest environmental news on a monthly basis, including updates on Nathan Eagle's 'Hawaii 2040' series.
  • What's this? Get occasional emails highlighting essays, analysis and opinion from IDEAS, Civil Beat's commentary section.

Inbox overcrowded? Don't worry, you can unsubscribe
or update your preferences at any time.