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.