When Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton praised Nancy Reagan on 11 March 2016 during the funeral, it sparked a dramatic backlash for unverfied facts and untruths.

Here’s what Clinton said in an interview with MSNBC at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley, California, about the late former first lady:

“It may be hard for your viewers to remember how difficult it was for people to talk about HIV/AIDS in the 1980s. And because of both President and Mrs. Reagan — in particular, Mrs. Reagan — we started a national conversation when before no one would talk about it, no one wanted to do anything about it, and that too is something that really appreciated, with her very effective, low-key advocacy, but it penetrated the public conscience and people began to say ‘Hey, we have to do something about this too.” (Source: New York Times, and International Business Times)

This was factually wrong.

On Buzzfeed, Chris Geidner titles his article: “Nancy Reagan Turned Down Rock Hudson’s Plea For Help Nine Weeks Before He Died“. He writes in the byline:

Rock Hudson was desperately trying to get treatment for AIDS in France in 1985. Much of that story has been told, but one part hasn’t: After a simple plea came in for White House help to get Hudson transferred to another hospital, First Lady Nancy Reagan turned down the request.

You see, Rock Hudson and Nancy Reagan were friends. But Nancy’s callous indifference marked her, together with Ronald Reagan, as enemies of the AIDS epidemic in the 1980s. By 1987, more than 25,000 people with HIV, primarily gay men, had died in the United States (Source: New Yorker). This was due to their  ignorance around this deadly virus.

But this article is not so much about the Reagans but about Clinton – and her team of researchers. For a busy person like Hillary (and other prominent public figures such as presidents), it can be assumed that there are ghostwriters who helped craft her speech, political analysts who have a certain linguistic flair who determine what she would say.

And that’s the pitfall of some high-profile public speakers: for an over-reliance on researchers and ghostwriters to craft their own speeches.

Clinton immediately apologised:

“While the Reagans were strong advocates for stem cell research and finding a cure for Alzheimer’s disease, I misspoke about their record on H.I.V. and AIDS,” she said in a statement about two hours after her interview had been shown on MSNBC. “For that, I’m sorry.” (Source: New York Times)

As a public speaker, you must do your own research.

The price of speaking untruths is too costly. Fortunately, according to Los Angeles Times, her LGBT supporters forgave her for this erroneous remark.

But I think the damage has already been done.

You see, the ancient Greeks used public speaking as a platform for rhetoric and persuasion. It was one that was based on ethospathos, and logos. Ethos is the appeal to the speaker’s reputation; pathos is the appeal to emotion; and logos is the appeal to reason. While this article does not seek to expound on Aristotle’s ideals in depth, it is imperative for every public speaker to understand these principles. This has harmed Hillary’s reputation, to some extent, as a credible speaker.

If you are an important and busy public speaker like Hillary, you can still get your ghostwriter to craft a speech, but do it in points. Then you can look through the actual script and make relevant changes, if necessary, based on the research notes. This is where extemporaneous speaking should come into play, as you ad-lib on those points.

This is a simplified example:

1. Who is Nancy Reagan?

  • She was born (year) in (where)

2. What did she do as the First Lady?

  • She did (this) in (year) at (where)

3. What did she believe in (or what was she an advocate of)?

  • She believed in (values)  – based on the evidence mentioned above
  • Are there counter examples that you might need to consider?

4. What was the political, economic, and social context of her time? What was she fighting against? What were her losses/ wins?

  • Evidence?
  • Are there counter examples that you might need to consider?

With as many counter-examples as possible, it is easy for you, the public speaker, to be aware of your opponent’s argument. While you may not need to tackle them in your speech, you should be aware of these at the back of your mind.

And then with logic and careful reasoning, it is easier to make statements that are based on facts. Add a touch of emotion and you would be able to win your opponents over.

But that is if you are not too busy campaigning for causes that you have forgotten that your words (your speech) will come back to haunt you —  for better or worse.

© 2010 | EDMUND CHOW