Analysis of a Speech by Phil Davison

The video below has been spreading like wildfire on the Internet. It is a short speech by Phil Davison, a Republican candidate for the position of Treasurer in Stark County, Ohio.

Phil Davison
Phil Davison

Davison’s speech, which was given to about 100 people, is, to say the least, memorable. In his blog, my friend Max Atkinson states that in over 30 years of collecting tapes of speeches, he has never seen anything quite like it.

News agencies and YouTubers are, perhaps not surprisingly, having a field day with the story. Now, I know nothing about Davison or the burning political issues in Stark County, Ohio.  But I would like to take a different tack and try to analyze the speech to see what lessons we can learn from it from the public speaking perspective.

First, the speech. If you haven’t seen it, fasten your seatbelt.

Two lessons

  • Lesson No. 1: Speakers must control their emotions. Speaking with passion is one of the most important things a speaker can do. But the passion must be harnessed and channeled in a constructive manner. Otherwise the speech becomes a runaway freight train. Do not let your emotions get the better of you.
  • Lesson No. 2: If you must refer to extensive notes, you are probably better off staying behind the lectern. If you step away, only to have to hasten back, it is very distracting. A speaker should move with purpose and confidence and not pace back and forth.

Additional observations

  • 0:00 – 0:30 During his opening, Davison referred to his notes at least ten times in 30 seconds. It is OK to use notes if you need them, but at the very least you should have your opening memorized as it is the first impression that you make on the audience. Note the mistake about the date of the election. Not a major gaffe, but not something you want to have happen right of the bat.
  • 0:35 Here, Davison explains a bit of his background, noting that he has served on his home county’s council for 13 years. Somewhat oddly, though, he tries to indicate the number 13 by holding up a combination of his fingers. Gestures should be meaningful; the gesture here was not needed.
  • 0:43 – 1:00 Davison sets out his educational background and, for the most part, he does a good job. He makes good eye contact and his voice is strong but measured – at least until he mentions his degree in communications.
  • 1:00 – 1:22 The finger-pointing and the tone are not likely to generate much sympathy. As for “I will not apologize for my tone tonight”, it would have helped if Davison had said exactly why he was so visibly upset. If the incumbent had done something to merit this degree of consternation, it would have helped to say so, if for no other reason than to assure people that this was heartfelt indignation rather than just ranting.
  • 1:22 – 1:35 “Republican in times good and bad.” Well, OK, he is a loyal Republican and he is speaking to members of his political party, but the statement is hackneyed, without any concrete examples and he screams it.
  • 1:35 – 2:05 This was a key part of the speech. Davison had a very powerful quote from Albert Einstein, but his emotion got the best of him and he botched the line. Unfortunate.
  • 2:05 – 2:35 He began by talking about the situation in the Treasurer’s office and how there was a need for structure and guidance. I was hoping to hear something substantive, a concrete example of what was needed. But there was only shouting, vague talk about “aggressive” campaigning and mixed metaphors (“hit the ground running and come out swinging”).
  • 2:35 – 3:00 He tried to engage the audience by asking what drastic times require, and this was good. But I would like to have seen the look on the face of the person who gave the answer (“drastic measures”) when Davison thanked him. His thank you was … beyond exuberant.
  • 3:00 – 3:40 I liked how Davison appeared to speak extemporaneously by referring to something his friend had just said. But the bit about “infestation” and politics being “winner take all” was incongruous and incomprehensible.
  • 3:40 – 4:40 I thought that this was, relatively, one of the best parts of the speech. Davison was calm and measured.
  • 4:40 – 5:52 But it didn’t last long as the “let’s use this knowledge … as a weapon” and the “both barrels guns loaded” was just grandstanding. The rest of the speech was relatively calm, but by this time the impression had been made.

Ultimately, Phil Davison did not get the nomination. In this article, he expresses his disappointment and his desire for feedback. Well, if he ever reads this blog, I hope that this post helps. Going forward, I would offer Davison the following ideas to consider:

  • Have someone proofread the speech to cut out excessive posturing and ensure that the content is substantive enough.
  • Practice the speech often, including moving with purpose.
  • Get comfortable without notes or with just the main points as an aide mémoire.
  • Breathe deeply.
  • Find a quiet place to warm-up right before speaking by swinging the arms, clapping the hands, stretching, etc. to release some of that nervous energy.

And finally, let’s not forget one thing. It might not have been the greatest speech, but at least Phil Davison had the courage of his convictions to stand up in front of 100 people and have a kick at the can. And that’s what public speaking is all about. It’s easy to criticize from the “cheap seats” but it’s another matter when you’re the one on stage.

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  1. Excellent analysis. You were also quite polite. It usually doesn’t have to be written down, but at some point, the speaker broke this fundamental rule; don’t sound like a raving lunatic!

    1. Thanks, TJ. He was clearly wound up about something. I later read some comments on other sites that there had been scandals in the Treasurer’s office before; perhaps that was what fired him up so much. The problem, as I said, was that he let his emotions get the better of him. If he could learn to focus that emotional energy constructively, he could be a good speaker. Remember what Ralph Waldo Emerson said: “All the great speakers were bad speakers at first.”

      1. Thanks for this analysis, John. It is a lesson on how to evaluate a speech with objectivity. I also appreciate that you read more about the issue to be able, I suppose, to understand why he delivered in this manner.

        1. Thank you for the comment, Irlande. I figured that more there were more than enough snide comments about the matter already. I figured that I would leave the punditry anf other commentary to others and try to focus purely on the mechanics of the speech.

      2. In fact what impresses me in Davison’s speech is the high level of adrenaline. His voice is trembling, like it seems to be his all body. Frankly, when I am angry, I must look like him. Very scary! So, John, thank you very much for having pointed out, in your analysis, the good points and the points to be improved. It is extremely educational.

        1. Thanks for the comment, Manuela. I wish that there had been more good than bad in the speech! However, if Davison can learn to control that emotion, and if he does not need to rely on notes so heavily, he could (potentially) be a much better speaker than the person we saw in the video.

  2. What a classy response to what others are treating as mere snark fodder. Thanks for the civility, and the public speaking hints!
    Watching Mr. Davison’s presentation, I found myself strongly put off by the manner in which he made eye contact with the audience. I’m no public speaking expert, but I felt he came off as overly confrontational because of the way he would keep his eyes locked on his listeners during pauses in his delivery–as if daring someone to disagree with his previous statement. The fact that he did this while stalking back and forth only magnified the effect, which was rather like getting dressed down by a football coach after a particularly bad first half.
    Anyway, I would be curious to hear what you, a seasoned public speaker, thought about his eye contact and how to improve it.
    Cindy (a rather rushed and mumbly speaker) in Texas

    1. Cindy,
      Thanks very much for such a thoughtful comment. Much appreciated.
      You raise an excellent point about the eye contact. Making eye contact is critical for building rapport with one’s audience. In this case, however, I agree that Davison’s eye contact was far too intense. And that pacing did indeed magnify the effect. How to improve it? Well, I do think that if he were to control his emotions more the next time, there would be a positive knock-on effect in many aspects of his delivery, including the eye contact. I think that being more relaxed would help his facial expressions, and the face is a backdrop, if you will, for the eyes. Smiling at one’s audience also works wonders at building rapport. Who was it who said that a smile is the shortest distance between two people?
      Making eye contact with people is certainly not a problem for Davison – and he sure seemed to cover the entire audience, which was good. So if he can harness the emotion – I can’t help but come back to that – relax and smile a bit, it will help immensely.
      Thanks again for taking the time. Cheers!
      PS – If you speak half as well as you write, I have trouble believing the part about being “rushed and mumbly”.

  3. John,
    I sincerely thank you for making me aware of this. This is now one of my all-time favorite YouTube clips. This guy is all over the place!!
    You did a great job of breaking it down, noting his…um…errors in judgment, and offering practical advice. Certainly passion is an integral part of effective presenting, but no need to bring a tidal wave when a 5-foot wave is all you need!
    Jon Thomas
    Presentation Advisors

  4. Good idea to take the positive! I guess a lot of what to take from it depends on if he was genuinely that worked up, or if he was just ‘faking it’ (perhaps because of bad training etc.)

  5. Great analysis of a speech that was truly painful to watch.
    I agree especially with your points on moderating emotions (not subverting them, but using them effectively) and letting the audience in on why he was so upset. Just explaining where he was coming from could have helped so much. To understand his deep anger and frustration would have made a world of difference to me.

    1. Thanks very much, Lisa. Indeed, had he tempered his emotion and given the audience some important background – explaining where he was coming from, as you say – it would have made a significant difference.

    1. Thanks, Rich. It was a bit of a challenge at first, but it became easier with time. Once the initial reaction wore off, it wasn’t as difficult to be dispassionate about the speech.

  6. Kudos on your excellent evaluation! Thanks for sharing it with this Linkedin group.
    One more point to remember: a speaker can be too monotone even when yelling.
    Russell Leavitt
    Group Administrator

  7. Great analysis! It’s refreshing (and kinda sad) to really break it down. There were two things that stood out to me that you did not mention. First, when he “pledged faith” to the Republican Party, he spoke well, but even that ran false or came off as posturing because of the way he stood “at ease”…almost passive. This definitely fed into the crazed sense of the speech even though he was calm. The second, was actually my favorite part of his speech, a moment where some truth slipped out, and may have been what was really upsetting him in someway (I later read he didn’t have a chance BEFORE the speech). This is the quote:
    “Government may be about service–politics is about winning!”
    Perhaps he has served well, but still can’t win. Is this a well known phrase? It seems very powerful, very true, and seems to describe what is going so terribly wrong with our system these days. I know this is a bit off topic. Anyway, is this phrase known to anyone?

    1. Hi bil_,
      Thanks for the detailed comment. I agree with you that the pledge did come off as posturing (even though I have no doubt that he was sincere about his commitment to the Party). Interesting second comment. I have heard the phrase before although I wouldn’t ascribe it the level of a proverb.
      I came across this quote by David Horowitz: “Politics is about winning. If you don’t win, you don’t get to put your principles into practice. Therefore, find a way to win, or sit the battle out.” There is a lot of truth in that statement and it sounds very rational (even if a bit Machiavellian). Had Davison said something – in a calm voice – along the lines of “Politics is about winning; it always has been and always will be. We must win this election if we are serious about restoring credibility and accountability to the Treasurer’s Office.” – that would have tempered the quote and added credibility to his message. But again, the emotion got the better of him.
      Thanks again.

      1. Nice find on the quote. If Davidson had said anything close to your suggestion, he would be a different candidate.
        I find the juxtaposition of service and winning to be the most intriguing feature, and the most lucid thought of the speech. This position, of winning vs. serving, seems to sum up the great disconnect in our electoral process quite well (painting with a broad brush here I realize). It is only ironic that these words of wisdom, coined or not, would come at the end of a speech that proved the distinction and disconnect within itself.
        Thank you for elevating the conversation, challenging me to think, and advocating that improvement is not only possible but preferable.

  8. Hi, John —
    Good post — you took the time to analyze some of the more excruciating parts of the speech that I wanted to pass over … quickly. The combination of adrenaline and emotion was what made the speech memorable. I blogged about the speech too, as an example of a lack of tact. I think speakers need to be able to judge an audience, a moment, and a set of circumstances, and adjust their rhetoric and passion on the fly. That this gentleman got it so spectacularly wrong just underlines the need to get it right.

    1. Thanks for the comment, Nick. I like the way that you put it – the audience, the moment, the circumstances. Giving a speech is like driving a car along the highway. Even if the road is straight, we cannot hold the steering wheel perfectly still; otherwise the car will eventually drive off to one side. We must constantly make little adjustments along the way. And that is what a speech is like. Though sometimes we have to make bigger adjustments than others!

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