Over the past two weeks, I actively watched both the Republican and Democratic Political Conventions and actively ignored the mostly useless commentary from cable news political pundits. My aim was to hear and experience the original talks and segments from both conventions without the biased real-time analysis. I was watching not only the live and pre-recorded talks, but also the structure of each of the events, who spoke, how the pieces were integrated and what the overall experience was.
There is still one day left, but so far the Republican Convention has been a flop.
I’m not afraid to make a political statement, but this is not meant to be an article about my political beliefs. Instead, I want to analyze both conventions as high-profile examples of virtual events that were held on perhaps the biggest stage imaginable. And they were very different in eight specific ways.
Why Does My Opinion Matter?
Before I share more, you may be wondering why I’m even qualified to have an opinion about this in the first place. Over the past decade, I’ve spoken at and attended more than a thousand live and virtual events from around the world. I have taught marketing, storytelling and persuasion at multiple universities and written seven books on related topics, including a #1 Wall Street Journal Bestseller earlier this year.
So if you’re tempted to dismiss this post as the biased commentary of an entitled blowhard, at the very least I hope you’ll consider me a decently qualified blowhard.
The Republican National Convention didn’t work, the Democratic National Convention did and there are eight specific reasons why. Let’s take a deeper look at each, along with some insights on how you can use these lessons in your own career and work.
1. Create an Experience
At most events, having a host or an MC to guide the experience for the viewer can help to bring all the different pieces of the event together. Every night of the DNC, there was a different celebrity female host, including Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Kerry Washington, Tracee Ellis Ross and Eva Longoria. They each offered a bridge between segments and added continuity to the event. For the RNC, this role was left to the TV networks to provide – which felt more disjointed. Particularly for viewers like me who would switch between multiple news networks throughout each night to watch the coverage on FOX, ABC, CNN, NBC and other networks.
2. Inject a Personality
The roll call is typically a predictable formality of a political convention, where a representative from every state stands up and submits the votes of their delegates to officially nominate their party’s candidate for President. At the RNC, this usually boring ritual was done in front of a step and repeat banner by those delegates who were invited to attend the convention in person. At the DNC, these nominations were treated as a welcome moment for personality to be injected into the event and every state’s representative took full advantage. The video of the entire DNC roll call and all the personality of it has already been watched more than half a million times (across multiple videos). It brought a moment of fun and personality into what could otherwise have been a rigid and formal event.
3. Show a Wide Base of Support
One of the things that stood out for many people was how many Republicans spoke on behalf of Joe Biden at the DNC. Beyond having members of the opposing political party, though, the DNC also included a panel discussion of every candidate that had run against Biden in the primary. The RNC, in contrast, featured (as of tonight) five members of the Trump family as well as a handful of loyal political appointees and elected officials. They certainly had the support and ability to bring a more diverse range of speakers to the event. Limiting it so heavily to members of the President’s family was a missed opportunity to show a wider base of support.
4. Tell a Backstory
People believe stories, and the most masterful communicators always focus on delivering a story by showing instead of telling. When former Second Lady Jill Biden went back to her former classroom to deliver her speech, it helped viewers to imagine her roots as a teacher and humanized her. First Lady Melania Trump’s speech was delivered in the Rose Garden of the White House in a formal setting surrounded by a backdrop of US flags. Both speeches were strong performances. Biden’s, however, offered a more authentic setting and positioned her as more approachable and human because it showed her backstory as well.
5. Have a Conversation
Both conventions worked hard to try and bring some interaction with their respective candidates into their events. For President Trump, this included a pre-recorded segment with former hostage survivors who were invited to the White House to offer their thanks to the President. And live during the convention, there was also an ethically questionable naturalization ceremony for five aspiring US citizens. Both were highly scripted moments designed to illustrate specific groups of people that owe their gratitude to the President. Biden, in contrast, used an interactive format with multiple virtual screens to have conversations with citizens about healthcare and racial justice where he spends most of the time listening to their perspective and asking engaged questions. As a result, it felt like more of a discussion instead of a staged conversation.
6. Make It Human
For many viewers, a highlight of the DNC was a pre-filmed segment with basketball star Steph Curry alongside his wife and kids talking about the world, elections and what’s really important. It was sweet, human, relatable and genuine. It’s a calculated strategic choice that both conventions had to consider this year … what speakers should they invite, record and then share with America? For the Democrats, they featured several recognizable celebrities, a wide variety of real citizens, elected officials, and (as I wrote before) more than a few Republicans. The Republicans too had some winners (South Carolina Senator Tim Scott was a particularly bright spot and an amazing speaker). Other choices for speakers, however, seemed to be selected solely on their ability to provoke outrage from the left. The end result was that many segments from the RNC failed to make that human connection beyond the most loyal base of the party.
7. Show the People
The third night of the RNC showcased perhaps the biggest difference between the conventions. While the DNC consistently popped in and out of people’s homes via shared Zoom screens and virtual audiences, the RNC largely focused on scripted audiences and (apart from the live speech from VP Mike Pence), almost all pre-recorded speeches from a podium in an empty conference hall. Now more than ever, we need to see the people. And the irony is that President Trump and the RNC likely have no shortage of people who believe in the party and the President. Yet it is always a risk to show real people unfiltered. The Democrats decided to take the risk. The Republicans didn’t, and it was hard not to notice.
8. Offer Redemption
On this last point, both conventions created highly memorable moments. On the DNC side, it was a young boy overcoming his stuttering problem thanks in part to encouragement from Biden and showing courage in a short speech that went quickly viral. On the RNC side, there was a feature about a boy who had been quickly and unfairly condemned by the media for a viral video that showed him standing at a rally with a Make America Great Again hat and a silly smile on his face. Both stories featured kids and a story of how they overcame difficulties, and both stood out.
It is perhaps this last example that offers the clearest takeaway of the one thing that could have transformed the Republican National Convention: more humanity.