29 September 2009

Brown surfs applause (briefly) before reverting to type

I've never seen Gordon Brown surfing applause before, but it got his speech off to such a lively start that he got a premature standing ovation. But once that was over, it was back to Brown-style speaking business as usual.

As a result, instant media comments a few minutes after he'd finished were already saying that the opening had got them expecting something better and that they were disappointed by what followed.

I obviously don't know whose idea it was that he should have a go at surfing, but the irony for me was that this is exactly what I had recommended David Cameron to do in order to up his game for last year's Conservative Party conference (HERE),

If you're wondering what I mean by 'surfing applause', here's an excerpt from one of the first posts on this blog that summarises how it works and why it can have an electrifying effect on audiences. Once the video of Brown's speech becomes available, I'll post a clip of the sequence in question.

'If Mr Cameron has already mastered most of the key techniques that set a good orator apart from an average one, the question arises as to whether there’s anything else he could be doing to take the next step into the premier league? And one thing he might like to consider is the art of surfing applause, a technique that’s only to be found among those at the top of their trade. Past maestros include Martin Luther King and Tony Benn, and today’s most prominent exponents are Nicholas Sarkozy and Barack Obama.

'Unlike most speakers, surfers don’t just stop whenever the audience applauds and wait until they’ve finished. What surfers do is to carry on speaking after the applause has started, which creates a number of positive impressions. It makes it look as though you hadn’t been seeking applause at all, and are really quite surprised that the audience has interrupted you with an unexpected display of approval.

'Then, if you keep trying to go on while the audience is still clapping, it’s as if you’re telling them that, unlike less passionate politicians, you’re the kind of person who regards getting your message across as much more important than waiting around to savour the applause. If you’re really lucky, and the broadcasters want to put this particular extract on prime time news programmes, the lack of any clean break between your speech and the applause makes it difficult for them to edit without including the adulation of the crowd as well – so that the various positive impressions are transmitted beyond the hall to the much bigger numbers viewing or listening at home.'

Video clips of other surfers in action can be seen HERE.


Having seen the video again, a number of points are worth noting.

First, it's the most extreme case I've ever seen since I first noticed it about 30 years ago - where what I mean by 'extreme' is that it goes on for longer and more persistently than I've ever seen before. As such it comes over as contrived and bears little resemblance to the more 'natural' sounding way in which more skilled exponents like Benn and Obama do it. That's why I think this was carefully planned to provide a rabble-rousing opening to what turned out to be a rather typical Brown speech.

Second, this list is not included in the 'full text' of the speech on any of the websites I've looked at so far, which suggests that the ploy was either a last minute decision, or was designed to spring a surprise on the media (or both).

Third, I was fascinated to see that the applause got under way immediately after the 3rd item in a 14-part list. CORRECTION: Actually, it was a 24-part list that can now be seen in full HERE on the BBC website. The clip below came from the BBC 10 o'clock news, where, interestingly, the editors had cut into it 3 items before the applause got under way.

Fourth, in the first cut-away to cabinet ministers clapping on the front row, all of them look more despondent than delighted, none of them are clapping particularly vigorously and Alistair Darling comes in so late that the Stalin would certainly have had him dispatched to Siberia on the first available transport.



Alan said...


Excellent analysis, as ever. I tend to agree. My take on the speech is on my blog at mediacoach.blogspot.com

Dorothea Stuart said...

Perhaps we should be encouraged that Gordon Brown appears to have had more help than usual in writing this speech. He was working a script well on BBC Radio4 this morning: "a new problem for a new generation", "an enterprising, dynamic and successful economy."

How is it that Obama can "overuse" rhetorical devices and get away with it, while GB sounds clunky, manipulative or (dare I say it), patronising?

Chris Rose said...

This comes across as a deadly example of surfing the applause, as it is a disjointed list of achievements. The technique works much better when the subject is emotional and it is passionately delivered.

And, as you say, the perfunctory clapping kills it off completely.

It never ceases to amaze me that, although he was kept waiting for 10 long years, Brown did so little to prepare himself to be PM. I suppose it was all those sycophants around him telling him how wonderful he was.