How to Communicate Effectively

The ability to communicate effectively is one of the most important and desirable leadership skills. It can make the difference between winning or losing your election, in ascending to power or staying stagnant.

Most of this book addresses powerful, poll-tested messages for your election campaign—what you say. This chapter addresses the mechanics of communication—how you say it. You need to be good at both; a poor communicator with a great message will get nowhere, as will a great communicator with a poor message.

Always remember, communication is the process of getting information from one person to another. The communicator is responsible for the transfer of information. If the voter at the door or in an audience does not understand what you are trying to say, it’s generally your fault, not theirs. Whether you are speaking to four people at a house party or to 400 at a community forum, keep in mind that everyone who takes the time to listen to you deserves a motivating and memorable experience. Make every opportunity count.

Actions Speak Louder Than Words

How do you spend most of your time when preparing to give a speech? If you are like most candidates and lawmakers we’ve worked with, your answer is content or the words. You might even think the content is all that matters. You’d be wrong.

In face to face communication—whether you are giving a speech, making a fundraising pitch or talking to a voter at their door—what you say is easily overridden by how you say it. Voters overwhelmingly rely on non-verbal information, your body language and verbal tone, to determine what you really mean.

A famous study by Albert Mehrabian, Professor Emeritus of Psychology at UCLA, found that an audience decodes the intent behind a speaker’s words:

  • from visual clues (body language) about 55 percent of the time;
  • from tone of voice about 38 percent of the time; and
  • from the speaker’s actual words only about 7 percent of the time.

Mehrabian’s work also demonstrated that when a speaker’s words and non-verbal messages are in conflict, the audience believes the non-verbal every time. There are several common situations where this research matters a lot to you.

First, when people are trying to decide whether or not they like you, they will pay most attention to what you are expressing non-verbally. Elections are popularity contests of sorts, and whether you win or lose depends on whether people like you enough to listen to what you have to say.

Second, when people are trying to decide whether they trust you, they will again pay most attention to non-verbal cues. For example, if you use strong words to say you are going to address a pressing problem but your shoulders are slumped, your hand gestures are weak, and your voice is high, they will simply not believe you.

Third, when people are trying to decide whether to believe what you are telling them—because they aren’t familiar with the facts of the matter—they use non-verbal clues to decide what to believe. This is very important when communicating with persuadable voters because they pay the least attention to the nuances of politics or policy.

Fourth, if people disagree with your position on an issue they will still use non-verbal cues to make up their minds about you. For example, they may strongly disagree with your tax policy but decide to support you anyway because you come across, non-verbally, as a stable and trustworthy person.

In short, we all use our emotions to help us decide what to think. Oftentimes we will first form an opinion based on our emotions and then look for facts to support that opinion. When the verbal and non-verbal are in conflict, people trust the non-verbal. So it is essential to make your best possible non-verbal presentation.

Visual Clues

About your posture:

Don’t . . .

Do . . .

Stand with feet too far apart, or locked side by side

Sway forward, slouch or crouch over

Put all your weight on one hip

Let your arms hang limply at your sides

Droop your shoulders

Look down

Cross your arms

Clasp your hands in front of you

Put your hands on your waist

Put your hands in your pockets

Stand up straight, with your feet shoulder width apart

Balance your weight over the balls of your feet

Knees and hips should be in line with the middle of your feet (not forward or back)

Relax your shoulders

Keep your chest up, stomach in

Hold your head upright and straight, chin elevated slightly

Hold arms at your sides, in a controlled manner with fingers slightly curled (this takes a little getting used to, but it is a very open posture to assume)

Stay alert, but relaxed 

About your movement and use of space:

Don’t . . .

Do . . .

Move just for the sake of moving

Rock, sway or pace

Lean on the podium

Race back and forth across the stage

Move forward toward the audience too suddenly (aggressively)

Own your space

Move in a controlled, purposeful, yet natural manner

Use gestures as you move, then re-establish good posture when you stop

Scale your gestures to the size of the audience/room

Step forward to establish a connection with an audience member, or to signal you are about to make an important point

Step backward as you conclude an important point, or to create a verbal and physical pause

Move laterally to strengthen a transition between thoughts 

About your gestures:

Don’t . . .

Do . . .


Use gestures that don’t feel natural; don’t try to “play” politician

Cross your arms (cold, closed)

Clasp your hands in front of you (weak)

Put your hands on your waist (too parental)

Put your hands in your pockets (nervous)

Touch your hair, face or neck (nervous)

Put your hands behind your back (what are you hiding?)

Use gestures that are much wider than your body (out of control)

Use too many large gestures (chaotic)

Use gestures purposefully; make sure your gestures match your points

Incorporate natural gestures that you do spontaneously when practicing your remarks

Use hands open, palm up at a 45 degree angle, to express honesty and openness

Use hands open, palms down, to express certainty

Use hands open, palms perpendicular, to express measurement or movement

Use gestures that go somewhat wider than your body (for a large concept or idea)

“Stay in the frame” even if there’s no camera; not too wide

Be sensitive to cultural differences; use gestures that mean the same thing to the audience as they do to you

About your facial expressions:

Don’t . . .

Do . . .

Smile constantly

Lick or bite your lips

Tighten your jaw



Shake your head “no” when you mean “yes” (you’d be surprised how many people do this) 

Use facial expressions purposefully; make sure your expressions match your points

Practice in front of a mirror, especially if you are naturally prone to having a “poker face”


Arch your eyebrows to indicate skepticism

About your eye contact:

Don’t . . .

Do . . .

Scan the room generally

Look only at one area of the room

Dart your eyes around the room

Try to look at everyone

Methodically work through the room section to section

Look at your notes or slides more than you look at people

Bore down on people

Look at the top of people’s heads, or at the back row

Try to maintain eye contact 90 percent of your time

Make natural eye contact

Make eye contact with individuals in the room

Make a connection with people who are nodding and frowning

Connect with people who help humanize your points (i.e. look at a parent with her child when making a point about education)

Maintain eye contact with the same person for one complete sentence or thought

In a large room, focus on the sections about 2/3rds back from the front

Be sensitive to cultural differences; gently look away if it seems someone is uncomfortable with you looking at them

Tone of Voice

About your breathing:

Don’t . . .

Do . . .

Forget to breathe

Forget that shallow breathing will make your voice sound more shrill (louder, maybe, but not more powerful)

Practice breathing deep and exhaling slowly

Take a breath before you start speaking

Use deep breathing to form a natural, powerful sound

Breathe during pauses

Breathe through verbal tics (i.e. “um,” “ah”) 

About your voice:

Don’t . . .

Do . . .

Speak in a monotone

Speak too quickly


Use words you can’t say (i.e. avoid “s” words if you have a lisp, don’t use words you routinely stumble over)

Practice an even but slightly varied tone

Your breathing exercises if your voice is squeaky and high (more common with women)

Pause just before and after an important word or concept to allow your audience to absorb that you are making an important point

Speak in an appropriate voice (i.e. conversational at a house party, authoritatively in a debate)

About your volume:

Don’t . . .

Do . . .

Raise and lower your volume too many times (erratic)

Try to use volume to convey power; a powerful voice comes from proper breathing

Speak over applause, laughter, etc.

Project your voice

Articulate clearly

Use volume purposefully, make sure you are using it to convey the proper tone

Raise the volume to convey excitement, anger, indignation, energy

Lower your volume to convey seriousness and draw people in

Learn how to use a microphone properly

Practice raising your volume if you are soft-spoken and generally hard to hear

Lower your volume if you are a naturally loud speaker

Minimize noise distractions (i.e. ask for lunch to be served before your speech, close windows)

About your pitch:

Don’t . . .

Do . . .

Keep your pitch high (unless you want to be perceived as weak, nervous and less truthful)

Vary your pitch too frequently

Lower your pitch to convey authority and credibility (women naturally have a higher pitch than men, but both genders usually benefit from lowering their pitch somewhat)

Relax and take deep breaths

Vary your pitch (higher to convey excitement, lower to convey seriousness)

Practice your inflection

About your tempo:

Don’t . . .

Do . . .

Lift the end of your sentences unless you are, in fact, asking a question

Lose the audience with long, run-on sentences

Vary the tempo, or pace, of your speech

Practice speaking 150-160 words per minute (a slow speaker speaks 120/minute and a fast speaker 190; planning 150-160 will allow you to vary your tempo)

Use a faster tempo to convey excitement, importance, and a slower pace to convey seriousness

Use appropriate sentence length to match your speaking style and to allow the audience to absorb what you are saying

Use pauses to transition between ideas, call attention to an important thought, and capture attention

Actual Words

How to write a speech:

Don’t . . .

Do . . .

Wing it

Work from just an outline

Phone it in—everyone who comes to listen to you is giving you their time, please make it worthwhile

Use long sentences

Use jargon, acronyms, bill numbers, etc.

Use positive words to make a negative point (i.e. don’t say “my opponent is a strong supporter of business”; say “my opponent is beholden to big business”)

Forget a speech is to be heard not read

Read your remarks

Forget to pare down your content to three main points you know cold (this will give you more time to focus on the all-important non-verbal communication)

Try to cram too much content into too little time 

Find out who will be in the audience, what they expect, and how much time you have to speak

Determine the purpose of your remarks

Decide what kind of speech you want to give (persuasive, informative, instructional, celebratory or to entertain)

Prepare an outline (open, point 1, point 2, point 3, close)

Write up the complete speech, including main points, transitions, stories, etc. (this will take several drafts)

Write like you speak, not how you write

Use short, simple sentences and active voice

Pare down the number of words to the amount of time you have (see “tempo” above)

Mark up the written speech to note pauses, highlight words you want to emphasize, aide with tempo, mark slide transitions, etc.

Practice the speech

Memorize the speech until you can give it without notes (or at least only glancing at notes)

Practice again and again

About the opening of your talk: 

Don’t . . .

Do . . .

Start in the middle

Dive right into your first main point

Use your entire opening to talk about yourself

Grab the audience’s attention

State the purpose of your remarks

About the body of your talk:

Don’t . . .

Do . . .

Add more points, concepts or ideas because you have more time (stick to three)


Limit the body of your speech to three main points, concepts or ideas

Decide how you want to organize your content (i.e. chronological, topical or causal)

Make sure your speech is audience-centric; this is about them, not you 

About the closing of your talk:

Don’t . . .

Do . . .

End in the middle

Just stop

Restate your three main points from the body of your remarks

Make an ask (i.e. votes, volunteers, money)

End strong

Finally, we recognize it is hard to pull advice out of a book and effortlessly apply it to your own campaign. Fortunately, there are a number of terrific organizations and consultants that provide training and coaching to help improve your ability to communicate effectively. Please contact the Progressive Majority Action Fund ( to request a training in your state, to receive invitations to our bi-weekly online message webinars, or for a referral request to another organization or consultant. We’re here to help.

Have a question or comment? Send us feedback here.


Do you like this page?