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Why Mario Cuomo Was a Public Speaking Master

I’d forgotten what a wonderful speaker Mario Cuomo was.

The former Governor of New York, who died today at age 82, inspired his audiences — not just with eloquent words (though he had those, and plenty of them!), but with his candor and passion. And while we can’t all be brilliant orators and speechwriters at the level of style and grace that Cuomo embodied, we can learn from how he developed his craft.

How did this leader (who’s been called “the last real Democrat”) convey his vision with such thrilling clarity?

He worked at it!

Great Speakers Like Mario Cuomo PREPARE Their Speeches Meticulously

Cuomo started by preparing the best speech possible. (PREPARE is the first step in all good public speaking.)

In an obituary for The New York Observer, a member of Cuomo’s speechwriting staff, Stephen Schlesinger, wrote:

[Cuomo] was a wondrous craftsman with words… [b]ut, under the pressures of his new job, he sought help from his staff… Cuomo, though, it must be said, compulsively rewrote all speech drafts we gave him, marking them up incessantly until they read exactly like he wanted them to read[emphasis mine]

Cuomo didn’t settle for speeches that looked good “on the page.” He made sure he was saying exactly what he meant, in words he could comfortably speak.

Great Speakers Like Mario Cuomo PRACTICE Tirelessly

But getting the words right is just Part One of great speechmaking. Cuomo also devoted himself to the second phase, PRACTICE.

Schlesinger goes on to say that,

[Cuomo] used to call me at home to recite his drafts to me over the phone. … It was a fascinating experience… to see how rigorously he labored with the raw communicative materials of his livelihood…

When writing his big speeches, he took the time to rehearse in front of a larger circle. For the 1984 Keynote Address at the Democratic Convention, he convened a number of rehearsals in an Albany state room and carefully reviewed the speech in its entirety…  [emphasis mine]

Being a “natural” is hard work.

Cuomo didn’t confuse “looking” spontaneous with “being” spontaneous. Like other legendary performers, he worked hard to make it look easy.

Great Speakers Like Mario Cuomo PRESENT to Connect with Their Audience

One of Cuomo’s most famous speeches was his introduction of Bill Clinton at the 1992 Democratic National Convention that nominated Clinton for President.

In this YouTube capture of that speech, NBC Anchor Tom Brokaw pays Cuomo the ultimate compliment when he says that, after blowing a similar introduction four years earlier,

…Bill Clinton [had] to go on Johnny Carson, play his saxophone and say that he’d misread the audience. Cuomo almost never does. [emphasis mine]

What Brokaw calls not misreading his audience could also be called respecting his audience, and that’s just what Cuomo does. Having worked so hard to prepare and practice his speech, Cuomo PRESENTS it with simplicity and sincerity. He doesn’t push. He doesn’t use theatrics. He doesn’t beat you over the head. He just lays out his thoughts and trusts that you, his audience, will get it.

This is what public speaking mastery looks like:

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