4 March 2010

Michael Foot's memorable oratory

For me, news of the death of former Labour Party leader Michael Foot brought back memories of the days when I was doing research for my book Our Masters' Voices, which included a section comparing the speaking effectiveness of him and Mrs Thatcher during the 1983 general election.

In those days, British television companies still showed quite a lot of speeches on their news programmes and it had been easy enough to collect examples of Mrs Thatcher using the main rhetorical techniques and video clips of her being applauded by enthusiastic supporters.

But, although Michael Foot had a reputation for being a very effective orator, it was almost impossible to find any comparable video clips of him using the same techniques, let alone receiving much in the way of applause. In fact, in some of the clips discussed in my book, he'd come across as uncharacteristically stumbling and long-winded.

A style that failed to meet the demands of the media
The problem was that Mr Foot was at his best when speaking without a script. But, early in the 1983 campaign, the media had started to complain that there was too much of a gap between the advance press releases of his speeches and what he actually said from the platform. To make life easier for reporters, he took to reading out the text of the pre-released speeches word for word - a style of delivery with which he was quite unfamiliar.

To make matters worse, Michael Foot didn't have very good eyesight - and no one in the Labour Party had thought of equipping him with a teleprompter. As a result, he spent most of his time glued to his scripts, hardly ever looking up at the audience and his delivery was much more hesitant than when he was free to speak without a text.

The day his advisors ignored a free tip
At some stage, his advisors must have become worried enough about how he was coming across for one of them phone me asking for help. When I asked what kind of fee they had in mind, I was told that they assumed I was a Labour supporter who would be happy to do it for nothing.

When I refused, the voice the other end of the phone pressed me further "But surely you could just give us at least one tip without us having to pay anything?"

"OK" I said "tell him to get some rimless spectacles."

The reason was that Mr Foot used to wear very thick horn-rimmed glasses, which made his eyes almost invisible to viewers (for more on which, see earlier posts on President Zuma's dark glasses and Tony Benn's hypnotic eyes), especially when he was looking down at a script.

But they knew best, and Micael Foot's stumbling campaign carried on unchanged - not that I'd be foolish enough to claim that my generous advice, however accurate it may have been, could have saved him or his party from the disastrous result that followed.

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