24 September 2009

Clegg’s conference speech: ‘definitely OK, absolutely fine, without any doubt not bad’

The last thing party leaders want when making their annual conference speeches is for something in the news to knock coverage of them down in the list of the day’s headlines.

So it was bad luck for Nick Clegg that he was wrapping up the LibDem conference at the same time as President Obama was speaking to the United Nations in New York, one result of which was that Sky News opted for live coverage from across the Atlantic rather than from Bournemouth. Another was that, if you look at the online versions of today’s newspapers, it’s actually quite difficult to find any references to his speech at all on their home pages.

But the fact that much of the reaction was as feint in its praise as the quote from former Blair speechwriter Phil Collins in today's title can't just be put down to 'bad luck'

Noticeable absences
Something else that party leaders should be aware of is that ‘noticeable absences’ from their speeches don't make good headlines.

The concept of a ‘noticeable absence’ is a simple but important one in conversation analysis. It refers to instances where conversationalists notice that something that had been expected to be (or should have been) said is missing – e.g. if you don’t say “hello” in response to someone who’s just said “hello” to you.

Speeches are obviously different from conversation, but you really don’t want the media giving higher priority to what you didn’t say than to what you did say, as happened in the following headline and opening few lines in The Times (which wasn’t the only paper that highlighted the absences):

Nick Clegg ignores Lib Dems' week of woe with pitch for Downing St
Nick Clegg urged voters yesterday to elect him Prime Minister in a brazen attempt to put a difficult and divisive pre-election conference behind him.

Speaking in Bournemouth Mr Clegg failed to discuss his promise of “savage cuts”, he ignored the dispute over tuition fees and made only a fleeting mention of the “mansion tax” proposal for properties worth more than £1 million, which was intended to be the flagship policy for the week.

Walkabout woe?
Given Mr Clegg’s obsession with not being regarded as a clone of Tory leader David Cameron, repeated in yesterday’s speech with jokes about Brad Pitt, I remain baffled as to why insists on aping the management guru-apparently unscripted-walkabout style of delivery that made Cameron stand out at the Tory leadership beauty parade in 2005 – and set him on course to win the top job.

If you want to assert how different you are from someone else, why on earth would you copy that person’s distinctive (for a British politician) style of delivery? Why would you do it if you aren’t as good at it as him? And why would you do it when even Cameron has increasingly given it up in favour of looking more ‘statesmanlike’ at a lectern? (For more on which, see HERE and HERE).

I’ve asked a number of LibDem insiders why he does it, whose idea it was and what the advantage is supposed to be, but they either don't know or won't tell me.

Time to abandon autocue?
One comment submitted to The Times ‘Live chat’ feature on Clegg’s speech raised an important question:

‘Does he have an autocue problem or does he just talk that way?’

This could well be at the heart of what's holding him back – because without giant teleprompters, he wouldn’t be able to pretend that he’s speaking off the cuff (you can see another LibDem MP wrestling with the huge autocue screen HERE).

One problem of wandering about, with or without autocue assistance, is that you have to find something to do with your hands. Another is the question of what to do when the audience applauds – an issue touched on previously HERE and HERE.

The trouble is that how you handle such apparently trivial details is likely to be noticed by reporters, and you really don’t want valuable column inches being wasted by such distractions, as in the following accurate observations (in italics) from Ann Treneman in The Times:

“I want to be prime minister,” said Nick Clegg, hands clasped as he stood in a spotlight. Nick, basking in their love, stepped back for a moment, preparing himself to deliver his next bombshell announcement.

Similar details also got a mention in the Daily Mail: 'Captain Clegg looked neat and tidy and waved his hands about ... He spoke fluently, strode around the stage and clasped his palms together at appropriate moments ... Once or twice he waggled a forefinger in a way that reminded me of John Major'.

I’m not sure how far his insistence on walking about and reading from autocue screens at the same time is diminishing his performance. But his delivery does seem to attract a good deal of feint praise like that from Phil Collins in today's title and other similar reactions to yesterday's speech, like:

'he gave a workmanlike version of what a modern Opposition party leader's speech tends to be these days. But that is as far as it went', a decent performance’, ‘fluent but strangely unpersuasive’, ‘there is no change in timbre in his voice, no rise and fall’, ‘I don't get the sense he really believes this’, ‘it makes you nostalgic for the rabble-rousing charisma of, er, Menzies Campbell’.

However, one thing I am sure of is that, if I were advising him, I’d get him to have a go at speaking from a lectern to see if it helped him to lift his performance beyond 'OK' and 'not bad'.

(P.S. It's great when other blogs like Liberal England pick something up from here, but I wish their readers it would take the trouble to read the whole story. From comments on the Liberal England blog so far, their complacency about media coverage of Nick Clegg's speech makes me wonder if they really are living in a world of their own).


David Cox said...

Very good analysis, I think the speech was good and confounded some commentators who had hoped to say something negative. However I agree it could have been even better if delivered at a lectern. One of the great advantages Cameron and Brown have at PMQs is they speak from their dispatch boxes, so why does Clegg dispense with the conference equivalent a lectern?

I think the problem is Nick is very good at the ‘Town Hall Meetings’ events, beating Cameron in that type of event. He seems to be trying to recreate that in a forum where it just doesn’t work. Nevertheless with the right help Clegg could prove to be a great speaker.

Max Atkinson said...

David - You point about the other leaders having the advantage of dispatch boxes to lean on (and rest their notes) in the House of Commons is spot on. I also agree that 'town hall meetings' and set-piece speeches at party conferences are different events requiring different approaches.

dreamingspire said...

I stand condemned: I posted a comment on Liberal England without first reading your blog, Max. So he WAS using an autocue! I only saw the excerpts on TV, and didn't realise that.
A wise old sage in my City, an LD Councillor, told me that he was not impressed by Nick's intellect when the LD leadership hustings came here. By contrast, he was very impressed by Chris Huhne but very frustrated by his failure to project himself.