13 May 2013

More nails in the coffin of political speech-making in Britain?


Above are the video clips I'll be showing at the UK Speechwriters' Guild Conference on Thursday. Below are some notes on what I'll be saying about them.

In earlier blogs, I've suggested that a major change in the past 25 years has been the replacement of political speeches by broadcast interviews as the main form of political communication in Britain  - even though interviews hardly ever result in anything other than bad news about the politicians themselves. As a result, effective political speech-making has become a dying art, in which there appears to be a curious collaboration between the media and politicians to continue relegating the coverage of speeches in favour of the broadcast interview (See Politicians and broadcasters in the UK: Collaboration or capitulation? and Do interviews ever deliver anything but bad news for politicians and boredom for audiences?).

At the same time, the politicians are also doing their bit to eliminate much of the passion and liveliness that were once a normal part of political rallies - by speaking in rather strange venues to audiences with little or no interest in politics, and certainly no motivation to applaud or boo anything they might hear.

These clips are intended to illustrate the trend by comparing leading politicians from 30 Years ago with leading politicians of today.

The big questions I'd like to hear answers to from people in politics and/or the media is what the point of such strange venues is and whose idea it was to 'neutralise' the political speech - politicians, their advisors or the media? 

I'd also quite like to know why a supermarket chain (Morrisons) has become the venue of choice for leading Conservative politicians.

1-3: Classic examples from the 1980s
Note that in each example the speakers deliver the key points with passion and that audience responses are very evident for all to see and hear.

4-6: Not so classic examples from 2010-2013
Note that all three leaders speak with their backs to a window, through which distractions are clearly visible (e.g. people walking about, cars and lorries driving by, boat on the river, etc.). Little effort goes into conveying much in the way of passion - which is hardly surprising given that it's not at all clear who is actually in the audience. Nor is their any evidence of what impact, if any, they might be having on those in audience (who remain completely silent and, for the most part, invisible).

7-8: Morrisons?
Last week,  David Cameron followed George Osborne's curious example a month earlier by making a speech at a supermarket distribution centre (Morrisons). Evidence of audience attentiveness and or approval (or disapproval) is fairly thin on the ground and their wandering about becomes something of a distraction.

9: Cameron's speech on Europe
When this much heralded speech had to be rescheduled, I tried to find out exactly when and where it was happening. After more than an hour's search on the internet, I came up with the extraordinary finding that it had already taken place - at 8.30 a.m. in the morning - at the London headquarters of an American company (Bloomberg).

There was no applause, booing or cries of "Here. here". And, as it was in February, the complete absence of coughing, sneezing and nose-blowing got me wondering whether there was anyone there in the audience at all. But of course there were, if no one else, plenty of journalists present.

As this clip shows, David Cameron's performance left much to be desired, even though he's one of our best contemporary political orators - and one was left wondering whether he'd bothered to rehearse what was supposed to be such a very important speech.


Hamish MacPherson said...

I think these are fair points - Citizen feedback has been farmed out to the internet (e.g. online petitions coalition's 'what shall we do' website) which are easier to ignore.

But worth pointing out that 1-3 are at party conferences which involve a very different kind of speech to one-off policy announcements. And Miliband's pallet speeches are an exception. Both he in his high street speeches and IDS earlier this year have been properly heckled.

I suspect Morrissons (and others) is chosen because the presence of workers in their work clothes in their work place give a very simple visual sign of approval. No matter how much choice the people had to be there, it gives the impression that they endorse the speaker somehow, that they are behind their policies for hardworking people.

Supermarket distributers strike an appropriate balance between service industries and secondary industries (and perhaps set the right - male - gender tone). And Morrissons strikes the right class balance in the way that Waitrose and Lidl wouldn't (and Tescos has it's own brand risks).

I'm sure these semiotic considerations aren't the only factors but I'm certain that they are in there somewhere.

As to whose decision it is, in my experience as a civil servant I'd say it's mainly special advisers who decide the most..suitable..environment for a speech.

Benjamin Ball said...

Max, you have certainly highlighted a big shift in medium of communication over the years. But, can I suggest comparing a party conference with a staged press event (and they will be press events, because that is how you speak to a large audience) is not fair.

You will speak differently when your main audience is the TV camera, with a 5-10 second soundbite requirement.

Can I suggest that this is a shift to which we need to adapt. There will still be a few large set piece speeches to crowds, but there will be fewer of these, alas.

Now you can reach 10 million people with a staged Morrison's event, and so you will. This just means different work for speech writers and presentation trainers.

Eric said...

If you write the audience approbation as "Here. Here" maybe it's right.
I've always thought it was 'Hear! Hear!'.
As an imperative, that makes sense. I can't make any sense of Here!