When Instagram Becomes a Dais
Throughout history, the most effective form of political communication has been the speech, often dressed in formality. Of course, it’s in my best interest as a speechwriter to say as much, but it is true: the backdrops have been grand, the rhetoric elegant, the ideas provocative.
When Martin Luther King Jr. described his vision for an America free of racism from the granite steps of the Lincoln Memorial, he opened with, “Five score years ago, a great American, in whose symbolic shadow we stand today, signed the Emancipation Proclamation. This momentous decree came as a great beacon light of hope to millions of Negro slaves who had been seared in the flames of withering injustice.”
The words sing. They elicit chills — as does any phrase taken at random from the text.
But one of today’s most influential orators, equally impassioned and ambitious, does not speak from monuments or hallowed buildings, nor with poetic language. She speaks from her couch, from her car, alone outside the Capitol. She’s on Instagram Live, cooking and doing the Hot Chip Challenge — and she opens most of her remarks with “hey, everybody, what’s up?”
Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez has rapidly emerged as one of the nation’s most visible politicians, and she’s achieved that largely through her style of communication.
Speechwriters and politicians should take a note from her playbook.
During a natural disaster, she logged on to provide “really important updates with respect to Hurricane Ida and all of the flooding that happened.” Discussing the January 6th insurrection, she used the word “frankly” four times in the first three minutes. (That is, frankly, too many times.)
When compared line-by-line to soaring speeches, her Instagram direct-to-camera remarks leave something to be desired. But it’s because of her everyday language — not despite it — that she’s so effective.
AOC’s colloquial speech is representative of a broader shift in political communication. Social media — and the constant access to politicians that it provides — has changed the standards for what we expect to hear from our leaders, making them informal, honest, and vulnerable.
Of course, AOC is not the first politician to use social media. President Obama used Facebook to turn out voters in 2008, and President Trump’s Twitter offered constant, unfettered access to his thoughts (or lack thereof). And in response to the Russian invasion of Ukraine, thousands lauded the leadership and communication of President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, who posted a video on Twitter, phone in hand, surrounded by members of his government, saying simply, “We are here.” The clip demonstrates that even in a conflict defined by Russian bombs and dictatorial violence, the right words can serve as a powerful weapon.
They can also be used as a rallying cry — that is, if everyday people know their marching orders. AOC assumes (correctly) that most Americans don’t understand what’s happening in Washington and uses social media to spell it out.
In March 2021, President Biden passed a pandemic relief package. Rather than crafting a press release fated for spam folders, or assuming her constituents received minute-by-minute updates from POLITICO Playbook, AOC went live on Instagram.
“I’m so excited to talk to you all about what’s in the bill, talk to you about the process on it, answer your questions… Did we get everything we wanted? Absolutely not. Did we get things that are going to change people’s lives? Absolutely yes.”
Then she answered questions about the bill’s contents for an hour, in a post that’s now garnered over 2.5 million views.
Even when questioning witnesses on campaign finance, a notoriously complex legal nightmare, AOC employs simplicity: “let’s play a game… I’m gonna be the bad guy.” You don’t need any context to understand what’s going on — and by the time she finishes speaking, you’re ready to dismantle the entire system yourself.
Of course, as speechwriters, we don’t always need to explain in the simplest of terms — but we do need to establish connection with our audiences by making complex ideas digestible and compelling. Our words persuade and educate: How will this bill make your life better? What does the insurrection mean for our country?
Establishing that connection requires patience without condescension, explanation without arrogance. That we can mimic.
One way to do it is by using another one of AOC’s tools: improvisation. Though speechwriters usually shudder at the thought, it’s because AOC goes off the cuff that she establishes her authenticity. After all — ordinary Americans don’t have a script to stick to.
She pauses often between words, not for dramatic effect, but to genuinely think about what should come next. Certainly she’s not the first politician to riff — Robert Kennedy improvised one of his most famous speeches the night of MLK’s death — but AOC is perhaps the first to tell the camera “woo, y’all, we got a lot to talk about.”
Rather than lecturing from a podium, she’s drinking a glass of red with you over dinner.
Not everyone can replicate this. (Indeed, if everyone could, us speechwriters would be out of a job.) Still, we can learn from it — because her unscripted remarks make her audience feel that they’re on the same playing field. Rather than talking down to our audience from the lectern, effective communication today is eye-to-eye and heart-to-heart.
And AOC’s informality and improv-savvy are a vehicle for something more important: vulnerability. Anyone can use casual language; what’s helped AOC break ground in Washington is her unapologetic honesty. Recounting January 6th, she told her followers, “I didn’t even feel safe around other members of Congress.”
AOC could pontificate about the importance of bipartisanship during fraught moments — as Biden has done — but why bother? She appreciates Americans’ waning appetite for feel-good messaging with democracy standing on its last leg.
The best political communication today — whether it comes from the Rose Garden or Instagram, behind a podium or the streets of Kyiv — will be sincere and straightforward.
Speechwriting has never been about finding the fanciest or biggest words. As professional communicators, we must understand not just our message, but the values that underlie it — and identify the best way to transmit them. This was true when MLK delivered his speech; it is true now.
We’re not overhauling old styles of political communication; we’re adding simplicity and social media to our arsenal. AOC’s remarks are different from MLK’s, but they’re music, too — jazz improvisation instead of classical overture.
Thanks, AOC, for changing political communication for the better — or, should I say, for showing us what’s up.
— Liza Harris (WWW Intern)
In “Orations Worth Ovations,” professional speechwriters analyze great speeches (real or fictional, historic or personal) and explain what makes them so good.