I watched Clint Eastwood struggle at the Republican national convention on Thursday night. I died a thousand deaths for the film legend as he stumbled over words and searched in vain to remember the jokes and applause lines he surely imagined delivering with graceful timing and easy charm. It wasn’t a complete failure, but it was damn near close, and I know why: He thought he could wing it.
I used to be an actor. I’ve been on hundreds of auditions and performed in front of large crowds. I learned the hard way that when speaking to an audience there is no substitute for preparation. Clint’s an actor, of course, and a far better one than I could ever be, but he made a real rookie mistake in thinking he could wing it.
Some people think they’re naturally charming. They think they can stand in front of a crowd and riff for a while and it will seem casual, unhurried, and intellectually coherent. “I know what I’m going to say,” they’ll tell you ahead of time if you ask about the presentation they are giving to the board of directors or the little talk they have offered to give to the church picnic. That’s a killer. For as sure as rain makes applesauce if you haven’t prepared—if you haven’t rehearsed exactly what you’re going to say—you will step onto that stage, or up to that podium, or in front of that church picnic, and your mouth will dry up. Your heart will start racing. Your mind will go blank. And all those clever lines you imagined yourself delivering will be replaced by:
They’re looking at me. I’m failing. What was I going to say? What the hell was I going to say?
Do you think Clint Eastwood rehearsed that bit where he talked with the empty chair as if it was President Obama? Do you think Clint Eastwood wrote it all down? I don’t think so. I think he thought, “I know what I’m going to say.” I think he felt lucky. And the results were, well, less than stellar.
I’ve served as the best man at two weddings. As everyone knows, the best man has two jobs: hold onto the ring and give the toast at the reception. In both cases, I was able to successfully hang onto the ring, but the toast was a total flop. Why? Because I didn’t practice. I didn’t write anything down. I didn’t, in truth, do much of anything to prepare. I just thought I knew what I was going to say. I thought lightning would strike.
I also delivered the eulogy at my mother’s funeral. Unlike the wedding toasts, this worked out well. I wrote it out. I edited it. I practiced. Knowing that I would be under intense emotional pressure, I resolved to focus all of my attention on reading the words I had written. No dramatic pauses. No attempts at eye contact. No laugh lines or rhetorical flourishes. I would just read the words.
And it worked. It worked because there is no substitute for preparing for an appearance before a crowd. You simply cannot take to a stage in front of a gathering of strangers, no matter how small or large that gathering may be, and expect to get lucky. You will lose. You will lose every time.
Funnily enough, Clint Eastwood’s awkward and prime-time consuming performance meant that Marco Rubio and Mitt Romney, who took the stage after him, had less wiggle room in a tightly scripted program than they were expecting. Rubio was especially squeezed, as he was undoubtedly told that he needed to leave enough time for the bulk of Romney’s speech to be delivered during the 10-11 p.m. hour on the east coast. I have no doubt that some producer or stage manager told the Florida senator right before he stepped on stage, “You’ve got 7 minutes less than you thought you had. Don’t go long. Don’t’ step on the governor’s time. We’ll cut you off. Don’t. Go. Long. ”
Rubio ended up giving the speech of his life, in large part because he had no time to think, or to emote, or—truly—to act. Every speech is made better by having to deliver it in less time than you think it needs. So many of these politicians think they’re God’s oratorical gift to man. They think they’ve got it. They think they have the natural charm to take an audience on an unforgettable emotional ride. Rubio may in fact have that natural charm, I don’t know, but last night he obeyed Hamlet’s timeless command to all public speakers everywhere to “speak the speech trippingly on the tongue.” He just said the words. And the words did his job for him.
People are now talking seriously about Rubio as a future president. He can thank Clint Eastwood for forcing him to pick up the pace. And we can all thank the film legend for reminding us that there is no substitute for preparation.