14 March 2011

Could Clegg improve his impact with better speechwriting and rehearsal?

As is explained in my books and illustrated by numerous video clips posted on this blog, the contrast is one of the most important and reliable rhetorical devices for triggering applause in speeches. So it can often be instructive to look at 'deviant cases', where they don't work quite as smoothly as they could or should have done, to see what went wrong and what, if anything, we can learn from them.

There was at least one such example during the Deputy Prime Minister's speech winding up yesterdays conference of the Liberal Democrats in Sheffield yesterday after a simple past/present contrast:

Clegg: "We cherished those values in opposition. Now we're living by them in government."

But, as you'll see, the applause didn't start straight away and, when it did, after his first "So yes", it sounded somewhat lukewarm (i.e. not only delayed, but also lasting well below the 'standard' burst of 8 ± 1 seconds):


It could. of course, be argued that this merely reflected the audience's ambivalence about their party's involvement in the coalition government. But there were at least two technical errors without which it could have induced a much more prompt and longer-lasting response.

1. Better scripting?
In stead of using a pronoun ('them') to refer to 'those values' in the second part of the contrast, the speechwriters could have made the sequence work better by repeating 'those values', so that it read as follows:

"We cherished those values in opposition.
Now we're living by those values in government."

2. Better rehearsal?
A second reason why the audience delayed before applauding was that Clegg didn't stop immediately after the second part of the contrast, but rushed on to continue with "so yes-'.

This may have been because he was too glued to the words coming up on the screens and was 'teleprompted' onwards, or because he hadn't rehearsed it enough beforehand - or perhaps a combination of the two.

In any event, a rather crucial line only managed to prompt a delayed and lukewarm response, leaving him looking vaguely perplexed as to what to do next, other than repeating the same two words waiting there on the screens.

So what?
You might think that this hardly mattered on a day when the news was dominated by the Japanese earthquake. And you'd be dead right, were it not for the fact that this particular sequence was one of the few that actually did make it on to the prime-time news bulletins last night and, via ITN, on to YouTube.

Related posts
On delayed and/or lukewarm applause

1 comment:

John Zimmer said...

A nice observation, Max. It shows the importance (and power) of well placed repetition.

Not only would I have repeated "those values", I would have dropped the "Now" in the second sentence, thus leaving each sentence with 11 syllables and a more similar cadence. Hence:

We cherished those values in opposition.
We're living by those values in government.

It might seem picayune to many, but it can be of monumental importance at a key moment in a speech, as your post demonstrates.