Why The Bad Geithner Bailout Speech Falls on Deaf Ears

A good speech goes a long way. Giethner should know this by now.


By Mary Kate Cary, Thomas Jefferson Street blog

Secretary Geithner's speech yesterday unveiling the plan is being met with universal distain: almost every major American newspaper, television news show, and cable talkfest led with a bad review of the speech, followed by the verdict from Wall Street when the market dropped.

Maureen Dowd, in a particularly tough piece in this morning's New York Times, makes fun of his voice quality during the speech. On MSNBC's Morning Joe, Mike Barnicle said that Secretary Geithner announced the plan "with the eyes of a shoplifter." Here's a video of the speech as well as a written transcript of the speech, so you can judge for yourself.

I'll leave aside analysis of the policies themselves and just talk about the rhetoric and his delivery, because I believe it's playing into why the plan is bombing.

When you watch the video, the Secretary seems to be very nervous, which might explain the voice cracking. Secretary Geithner does use a teleprompter—but he switches his eyes too quickly from one screen to the other, on opposite sides of the podium, while shifting his weight from one foot to the other at the same time. He also continually looks around the room—perhaps to make eye contact with the members of the audience—but as a result appears shifty-eyed and fidgety. Not exactly confidence-inspiring.

A good speech tells a story. It connects the speaker with real people and with the subject matter. There's a reason so many political speeches start with an anecdote about a single mom in Peoria, or a college student in Fort Myers. (It's no accident that President Obama is holding town hall meetings in both those places this week). Stories like those tell the audience that the speaker gets it. Geithner's speech didn't have a single story. No mention of friends who've been laid off, families he knows who are struggling to make ends meet, no "kitchen table" stories. President Obama said recently that every unemployment statistic is a personal crisis for a family. You can't help but wonder: does Tim Geithner get it? Or is he more comfortable talking about unemployment statistics than families?

In speeches that deal with finances and are heavy on numbers, the risk is that the audience will tune out — too many facts and figures are better left to a fact sheet or handout. One way around it is to verbally round the numbers, so they're more for the ear than the eye: two-thirds of Americans will benefit from this program, for example, or one out of six banks have tightened their lending. It's a way to get across the specifics and add gravitas to your case without turning off the audience.

Rather than making his case with easy-to-digest numbers, all through the speech Geithner just left most numbers out. For example, "Borrowing costs have risen sharply" ... "Many banks are reducing lending" ... "This strategy will cost money, involve risk, and take time." These sweeping statements don't come across as credible because they don't sound well-researched. They sound like platitudes.

Then, fifteen minutes into the speech, the killer: "We will announce the details of this plan (pause) in the next few weeks." According to the AP, it was at that point that all the traders watching on the floor of the NYSE walked away from the television monitors, disgusted. And the market dropped nearly 400 points.

Humor can go a long way toward establishing credibility—"I'm one of you," a story told at one's own expense says—and while this subject is no laughing matter, a self-deprecating story at the beginning of the speech might have gone a long way.

One final thought: as Geithner spoke, all I could think of was that old Saturday Night Live skit, with Kevin Nealon as Mr. Subliminal. Mr. Subliminal makes a sweeping statement, and then adds what he really thinks under his breath. Secretary Geithner's failure to pay taxes kept popping into my head. When the Secretary said, "Home prices are still falling, as foreclosures rise and even credit worthy borrowers are finding it harder to finance the purchase of a first home, or refinance their mortgage," I wanted to add " or pay their taxes. " When he said, "We have different authorities, instruments and responsibilities, but we are one government serving the American people, and I will do everything in my power to ensure that we act as one," " even though I didn ' t pay my taxes, " came to my mind. Over and over again. The fact that this speech came on the heels of his well-publicized tax problems could be affecting whether people trust him as a speaker.

Maybe all the critics would be giving him the benefit of the doubt today if he had made a little fun of himself, told a well-crafted story, and added a few rounded numbers to his statements. If he had acknowledged his tax problem, maybe it would have bolstered his credibility. And with a little editing of his speech, maybe the Administration's plan would be getting a better reception from the press and from Wall Street this morning.

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