Official Blog of Bannon Leadership Consulting Founder Shawn Bannon

A PR Pro’s Defense of Sarah Palin’s Palm Reading

The political world’s been abuzz this week with pundits on the left and right trying to score points over former Alaska Governor Sarah Palin’s use of some hand-written notes during a recent question and answer session.  And by “hand-written notes” I mean to say notes that were literally written on the palm of her hand.  Some on the left have jumped on the former governor, suggesting that her reliance on the notes suggests a lack of knowledge about the issues of the day. 

Sarah Palins hand is shown with scribbled notes at the National Tea Party Convention. Feb 6, 2009/AP Photo

Sarah Palin's hand is shown with scribbled notes at the National Tea Party Convention. Feb 6, 2009/AP Photo

Setting aside the politics and acknowledging that Mrs. Palin’s too-long look into her hand before answering a question was poor stagecraft, I have to say that as a speechwriter and PR professional, I LOVE the fact that Palin had the foresight to write out those notes. Some might call it a cheat sheet, but the reality is that politicians and business leaders use notes like these everyday when they talk with the media.  They aren’t usually written on the speaker’s skin, but they are legitimate and important tools, providing the speaker with a continual reminder to bring the answer to every question back to the most important points again and again. It’s a tool to prevent oneself from being pulled off-message.

It’s so easy — even for very polished speakers — to find themselves so deep in mental editing as they try to answer every question during a Q&A session that they lose sight of the messages that are most important to them. That’s how bad sound bytes wind up on TV. In this case, people are making a big deal of the fact that she so obviously looked at her notes, and she should maybe be criticized for a lack of subtlety, but she stayed on message. And most of us in the practice of public relations would love it if our clients made that sort of effort to do the same.

In PR, we teach our clients to answer the question they want to answer and not necessarily the one that was asked. That doesn’t mean you dodge a question you didn’t want or that you ignore it. It means you make a focused effort to frame your response so that you can naturally bring every answer back to the messages you want to convey. That results in repetition, which breeds retention by your audience.  And it gives you the best chance of ensuring that your message comes across in any audio or video clip that makes it to broadcast in a world of sound byte journalism.  It’s why we spend so much time creating Q&A documents with every question we can imagine for our clients to study before a major event or announcement.

It’s ironic that we’re so willing to accept a speaker’s use of a TelePrompter or a deck of index cards but that some have vilified Mrs. Palin for writing three short phrases on the palm of her hand.  These weren’t whole answers; they were six key words she could refer to in order to keep herself on track.  My point is not to defend the former Governor for her politics, but attacking her for this is kind of like attacking somebody who’s tied a string around her finger to remember to pick up milk on the way home from work.  The political punches being thrown over this are silly. 

As somebody who has made a career of preparing others to give speeches and face the media, I thought the idea was brilliant even if she mildly botched the execution.

Having said that, one of the reasons Mrs. Palin has been attacked so aggressively for her use of notes is that she has criticized President Obama for what some believe is an over-reliance on the use of a TelePrompter.

President Obama seems most comfortable speaking from a TelePrompter

President Obama seems most comfortable speaking from a TelePrompter

TelePrompters can be tremendous tools, and I frequently encourage speakers to use them if they’re willing to take the time to practice with them.  It’s obvious that the president is very comfortable speaking from a TelePrompter.  What’s hurt his reputation as a speaker is the fact that he has delivered some truly stirring performances while speaking behind the tilted glass screens of his TelePrompter whereas, by contrast, some of his efforts to speak off the cuff have seemed disjointed and awkward. 

Some folks on the right have leaped to claim that Awkward Obama is the real Obama, hoping to steal some of the air from his soaring rhetorical performances.  While it may be true that the president is not as comfortable or as capable a speaker without the benefit of a TelePrompter, as in the case of the attacks on Mrs. Palin, the indictments are more political than honest or fair.

The reality is that very few speakers are able to stick to their key messages without the use of notes or scripts in one form or another.  The suggestion that great men and women should be able to speak without notes for any length of time has led to a lot of boring, meandering speeches that have no poetry and no chance that they’ll be fondly remembered. 

As the audience members for these remarks at countless lunches, banquets, seminars and conferences, why would we ever want our speakers to show up and just wing it?  Rather, we should be thrilled when they arrive with prepared remarks – in their jacket pocket or on the palms of their hands – because it means they’ve come with a purpose and look to say something worth hearing.

How do you and your clients prepare to face the media or to speak to an audience?  What tools do you use to help you stay on message?  Leave a comment below, or e-mail me with your thoughts.  And don’t forget to follow Bannon Communications on Twitter.

3 Responses to “A PR Pro’s Defense of Sarah Palin’s Palm Reading”

  1. Michael Gury says:

    Wow, that was $16,666 per word! I’d tattoo those bad boys to my hand if I got that kind of fee.

  2. Shilo Raube says:

    The problem with her writing notes on her hand is that it just adds to the perception that she’s not serious about anything. Writing things on your hands is childish and unprofessional. Had she had the notes on paper/index cards or used a teleprompter, would she be ridiculed? Probably because she is for every little thing she does…and unfairly at times.

  3. Shawn Bannon says:

    Well, Michael, I think I’d have to argue that she actually said a lot more than just the six words that were written as a reminder on the palm of her hand. If my math is right *and* if she were being paid on a per-word basis, I think it figures out to something like $18/word at almost 5,600 words. I bring this up only to reinforce the point that these few words were only ever intended to serve as guideposts or landmarks — signals to help ensure she stays on track during Q&A after a long speech in which she covered a lot of ground.

    So, I’d hold off on that tattoo for now. Still, not a bad take for one night’s work!

Leave a Reply to Shilo Raube