So, Democratic Presidential candidate and current New Jersey Senator Cory Booker is all over the news this week for his use of a popular colloquialism referencing Kool-Aid – sigh – during the second night of CNN’s Democratic primary debate.
It was funny, and he handled the ridicule in the aftermath well. But man. Talk about cringe worthy moments.
Headshaking and eye rolling aside, Booker didn’t need to remind anyone that he’s Black. No one, and I do mean no one, is unaware – nor will they let him forget it should he win the Democratic nomination. There will be endless comparisons to President Barack Obama, and he’ll have to be as careful as our former President was to maintain the elegance of the office.
There are many things I was always – and am still – proud of President Obama for: that natural elegance, his eloquence, and his ability to speak to any audience. I’m not suggesting that Booker is a poor public speaker, nor do I think his recent Kool-Aid reference is necessarily about code switching. I think his authenticity may have simply struck the wrong note here, and in the heat of debate, for a split second, he forgot who he was talking to. After all, his audience was not solely comprised of Black people, the demographic most likely to understand and appreciate his Kool-Aid reference.
See, it’s not always about what you say, but what people hear. Of course Black people are not the only people who drink the beverage, but a Black man says Kool-Aid, and those who know what it is, will immediately make certain associations. Kool-Aid is cheap. To taste right it requires a lot of sugar, so it’s unhealthy. It’s popular among poor people. It turns your mouth colors. You see where I’m going with this?
Image is (almost) everything, especially when the stakes are this high. Do we want our President, the next leader of the free world and representative of these great United States to drink Kool-Aid? On one hand, we certainly want our leader to be humble, and to understand the plight of the poor and the working man. But macro? Probably not.
The world already makes a ton of assumptions when it sees a black body. Most of them inaccurate and just generally not good. I hate to keep bringing up our beloved Barack – please forgive the familiarity, but that’s my guy. Ask me about the time I met him; I love telling that story – but he was just so darn cool! In the smartest, most utterly unbothered, most I can handle you with a wink and a smile with my well-manicured finger on that big red button type way.
You know what I mean. He was just, ready.
Oh, President Obama kept it real. No one reasonable ever accused our President of forgetting who he was, for sure. Everything about him, his walk, that enviable swag, that oratory style that brought to mind the pulpit on myriad occasions, it cooed strong Black man without any need to state the obvious. But my point is, he was always audience appropriate, which is key to his power to influence.
The ability to appeal to any audience is a complex and incredibly valuable communication skill when it comes to being persuasive, rallying a group behind your message, or prompting a group to take a particular course of action – like voting. It requires intelligence, but more importantly, it requires preparation and a keen, deep understanding of your audience and your purpose when you stand before them.
Cory Booker didn’t make a mistake that he can’t recover from. Heck, he plays this thing right he can ride this Kool-Aid thing straight to the finish line – meme-land and the prize of the election, the world’s attention. But he, and anyone with the desire to win in an underdog position, has to always remember: When it comes to public speaking, you must keep your audience top of mind, and always, always keep your composure.
Your language, your presence, your attitude, your dignity, all must reflect the position you hope to attain. Everyone makes mistakes. Think consistency. Your presence, your brand, your production value – collectively – must invoke one ideal. The details of that ideal will vary depending on your goal, but it must always be of the highest quality.