26 March 2009

Does Daniel Hannan’s attack on Brown tell us what makes a speech memorable?

When I first started doing research into political speeches in the early 1980s, I concentrated on sequences that prompted applause – as it seemed a fairly obvious and unequivocal barometer for measuring audience approval. What attracted most attention about the results was the observation that most bursts of applause are triggered by a small number of simple rhetorical techniques (Our Masters’ Voices: the Language and Body Language of Politics, 1984).

But the book also included some observations about the content of the messages that get applauded in political speeches, the main finding being that 84% of the bursts of applause occurred after a boastful statement about the speaker’s own party or an insult/attack on an opposing party – or some combination of the two (OMV, p. 45).

When I was actively involved with the Liberal Democrats during the Ashdown years, we had some interesting arguments, thanks to their rather pious tradition of trying to stand aside from ‘Yah-boo’ politics – which would make it sound inconsistent if they were to use too much in the way of knocking copy.

But my point was (and still is) that to abstain from the insult/attack option means signing up to a self-denying ordinance that deprives you of one of the main techniques for generating audience approval - and the success of Vince Cable's suggestion that Gordon Brown had changed from Stalin to Mr Bean suggests that there is at least one member of the current leadership team willing to deploy an insult now and then.

So the first thing that struck me about Daniel Hannan’s speech was that almost every sentence conveyed an insult or attack – not just directed at Labour in general, but highly personalised ones aimed at the leader of the Labour Party in particular.

Add to this the fact that it was in front of MEPs in Strasbourg and in the presence of Mr Brown, a distinguished guest who had just made a speech, and the context becomes comparable with that of a cheeky schoolboy standing up at speech day and telling the headmaster exactly what he and others thought of him in full view of all the other pupils, teachers and parents.

If Mr Hannon’s repetitive use of the insult/attack option, packaged with some neat rhetoric and appropriate imagery (on which, see HERE), may have set the speech up to attract more attention than usual, it’s obviously not the only reason for its success.

Since writing Our Masters’ Voices, I’ve been asked many times: what makes a truly memorable speech? However intellectually and financially rewarding it would be to have a definitive answer, I can't claim to have got there yet. But I do have the beginnings of a theory.

Effective use of rhetoric and imagery to package the key messages is important, but it doesn’t really provide anything like a compete answer, not least because the same techniques are to be found in all famous speeches.

So I started trying to get together sample of speeches that qualified as such to see if they had anything in common. After asking scores of people which speeches they considered ‘memorable’, what surprised me was the frequency with which they mentioned the same four speeches (remember that I was doing this 25 years ago):

Harold Macmillan’s ‘Wind of change’ in the South African parliament in 1960
John F Kennedy’s ‘Ich bin ein Berliner’ in front of the Berlin wall in 1963
Martin Luther King’s ‘I have a dream’ in front of the Lincoln Memorial in 1963
Enoch Powell’s ‘Rivers of blood’ in Birmingham, 1968

So what, if anything, did these particular speeches have in common that made them stand out as more memorable than most?

The best I’ve been able to come up with is that, in each case, the speaker managed to hit the jackpot by saying something that struck just the right chord with just the right audience in just the right place at just the right moment in history – which means that it’s more or less impossible to predict ‘memorability’ with any certainty in advance of any particular speech - though I did wonder whether this was what Barack Obama had in mind when he tried unsuccessfully to speak at the Brandenburg Gate when visiting Berlin last year – given the previous Berlin successes of Kennedy in 1961 and Ronald Reagan’s ‘Tear down this wall’ in 1987.

Much the same can be said of three more recent specimens of the commonest answers to the same question about memorable speeches:

Ronald Reagan’s ‘Challenger’ speech after the shuttle disaster in 1986
Tony Blair’s ‘People’s Princess’ speech on the death of Princess Diana in 1997
Lord Spencer’s eulogy at the funeral of Princess Diana (his sister) in 1997

At this point, I should make it clear that I am not suggesting that Daniel Hannan’s speech in Strasbourg the other day will ever get anywhere close to the long-term ‘memorability’ of the above examples. But I do think that, when it comes to explaining its sudden succes, the same factors -- right chord/right audience/right place/right time – may help to answer the question appearing on blogs and in the media, namely why has it taken off in the way that it has?

Right chord: challenging one of the favoured solutions to the current economic crisis
Right audience: including a prime minister and people around the world who are also unconvinced by such solutions
Right place: in the European Parliament where there is disagreement between countries about the alternative solutions
Right Time: Just before the G20 meeting about agreeing a global solution to the economic crisis

What brought me back to this question after so many years was reading through some of the 5,573 comments (at the time of writing) about the speech on YouTube.

You don’t have to read many of them to see that the right chord, the right audience, the right place and/or the right time are recurring themes from those who liked the speech well enough to want to put their own comments on the record.

8 comments:

Richard said...

"...memorable speeches:

Ronald Reagan’s ‘Challenger’ speech after the shuttle disaster in 1986
Tony Blair’s ‘People’s Princess’ speech on the death of Princess Diana in 1997
Lord Spencer’s eulogy at the funeral of Princess Diana (his sister) in 1997..."

Memorable speeches? I do not remember a thing about any one of those speeches! Presuming they existed, they were entirely unmemorable. Certainly I don't care any more about Diana than I would any other caring mother dying. What were your criteria for a "memorable speech"? I suggest you go back to Churchill and work from there.

DiscoveredJoys said...

Hmm...

Ronald Reagan’s ‘Challenger’ speech after the shuttle disaster in 1986
Tony Blair’s ‘People’s Princess’ speech on the death of Princess Diana in 1997
Lord Spencer’s eulogy at the funeral of Princess Diana (his sister) in 1997...


Don't do it for me either. I think you need to elaborate the 'right time' a little. Times when big changes are trembling in the balance, where a new direction is required, and then The Speech crystalises that change perhaps?

Many of Churchill's speeches provided that fulcrum for the fears and desires of others to swing around.

Or Kennedy's "First, I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the Moon and returning him safely to the Earth."

Pivotal points, often only recognised much later. Was Hannan's speech pivotal? Probably not... although it did strike a chord with many people. We shall see.

Charles Crawford said...

Your posting and the grumpy comments so far just go to show that what is seen as memorable is all about what people themselves remember!

The Reagan TV bradcast after the Challenger disaster was quite magnificent in capturing a dramatic moment in an adult way. Watch it on YouTube: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5JKIZ7j20EA

Part of the issue here is that we know that most great speeches from the past were 'great' because the media told us they were great. The media told us when a speech struck the right chord, and eventually people started to know that about the speech when they themselves had heard little if any of it.

Of course the Churchill speeches coming by radio into the homes of millions of people during a war did represent an immediacy which moved and mobilised a nation. And they read well afterwards.

Now people can see/hear speeches for themselves, and/or pore over them afterwards as in this Hannan case. This makes a big change.

That said, something like this Hannan attack might for no obvious reason win a sudden viral following as a bit of a laugh, then abruptly peter out - not quite the same as being memorable or indeed remembered.

I used to write speeches for FCO Ministers and tried to come up with a memorable phrase which captured the core 'message' of the speech in a pithy way. See eg this description of a speech I drafted for Geoffrey Howe where he kept rejecting the punchline but eventually accepted it:
http://charlescrawford.biz/blog.php?single=187

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the post Max.

It's interesting that the three modern memorable speeches you mention are all responses to immediate tragic events.

The former ones were analyses of where we are and where we're going.

Evidence of social dumbing down?

Wrinkled Weasel said...

I would add to the list - Right Person.

The fact that Hannan is unknown outside the European Parliament is significant I feel.

Had the very same speech been delivered by David Cameron I doubt it would have had the same impact because he comes with so much baggage.

Hannan's accent, his delivery, his stance, were what you might describe as post patrician: that is, he belongs to those great patrician orators like Churchill, but with a contemporary twist. This has been deeply unfashionable, but I would put money on it coming back, if nothing else than as an antidote to professional northerners who just sound like tiresome ranters.

Plato said...

How can anyone not recall Lord Spencers' speech from the pulpit her Diana's funeral?

It would have burnt the paint off a door. I stood open-mouthed listening to it.

Had forgotten the Reagan one - thanks for the link

gta mls said...

Max, thanks a lot for your article - so far I have only seen bloggers praising him or others denouncing him (probably labour party voters?). But only you so far provided some kind of analyses why this video has hit the one million views in less than 48 hours... Thank you.

Take care, Julie

ukipwebmaster said...

I think you'll find these quite memorable:

Failed politicians always go to heaven:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EMMxomYvMoA

How do you solve a problem like Daniel, Roger and Stuart?

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fzldaK_psPM

The other speech that preceded Daniel Hannan's:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XDwQEEAZhWM