23 September 2013

The Queen's Speech: an exception that proves the ruler


(I've just noticed that a link from today's earlier blog post wasn't working, so the original from five years ago is reposted here).

Here's something at the other end of the scale from previous blogs about Barack Obama's brilliance at oratory.

At the State Opening of Parliament on 3rd December, the Queen, as she does every year, will be reading out her government's legislative plans for the months ahead. Most commentators will be listening to the Speech to find out what Gordon Brown is going to be putting on the statute book in 2009.

How not to speak inspiringly
But you can also listen to it as a model of how not to give an inspiring speech.

Public speaking at its best depends both on the language used to package the key messages and the way it is delivered. Using rhetoric, maintaining eye contact with the audience, pausing regularly and in particular places, stressing certain words and changing intonation are all essential ingredients in the cocktail for conveying passion and inspiring an audience. This is why it is so easy to ‘dehumanise’ the speech of Daleks and other talking robots by the simple device of stripping out any hint of intonational variation and have them speak in a flat, regular and monotonous tone of voice.

When it comes to sounding unenthusiastic and uninterested in inspiring an audience, the Queen’s Speech is an example with few serious competitors. She has no qualms about being seen to be wearing spectacles, which underline the fact that she is reading carefully from the script she holds so obviously in front of her. Nor is she in the least bit inhibited about fixing her eyes on the text rather than the audience. Then, as she enunciates the sentences, her tone is so disinterested as to make it abundantly clear that she is merely reciting words written by someone else and about which she has no personal feelings or opinions whatsoever.

This is, of course, how it has to be in a constitutional monarchy, where the head of state has to be publicly seen and heard as obsessively neutral about the policies of whatever political party happens to have ended up in power. The Queen knows, just as everyone else knows, that showing enthusiasm, or lack of it, about the law-making plans of her government would lead to a serious crisis that would be more than her job is worth. So, even when announcing plans to ban hunting with hounds, she managed not to convey the slightest hint of disappointment or irritation that a favorite pastime of her immediate family was about to be outlawed.

The Queen’s Speech is therefore an interesting exception to the normal rules of effective public speaking, and her whole approach to is a fine example of how to deal with those rare occasions when you have to conceal what you really feel about the things you are talking about. Another master of this was Mr McGregor, an official spokesman for the foreign office during the Falklands war, who made regular appearances of on television reading out progress reports in a flat, deadpan monotone – presumably because a vital part of his job was to give nothing away that might have encouraged or discouraged viewers, whether British or Argentinian, about how things were going in the South Atlantic.

How to prevent a civil war
A much more surprising case was Nelson Mandela’s first speech after being released from prison in 1990. Here was a highly effective communicator, whose words at his trial 27 years earlier are to be found in most books of great speeches, and who had had the best part of three decades to prepare an inspiring and memorable text. But it was not to be. As if modeling his performance on the Queen’s Speech, he buried his head in the script and spoke in a flat measured tone that came across as completely lacking in the kind of passion everyone was expecting from someone who had suffered so much and was held in such high regard by his audience.

Having waited for years for this historic event, anticipating something on a par with Martin Luther King’s ‘I have a dream’ speech, I remember being disappointed and surprised by what I saw and heard from the balcony of City Hall in Cape Town. It was only later that it dawned on me that this was another case where rousing rhetoric would have been completely counter-productive. The political situation in South Africa was poised on a knife-edge and his release from prison had only happened at all because the apartheid regime was crumbling. It was a moment when anything more inspiring from Mandela might have come across as a call to arms and could easily have prompted an immediate uprising or civil war. But the political understanding with the minority white government was that the African National Congress would keep the lid on things for long enough to enable a settlement to be negotiated. As when the Queen opens parliament, Mr Mandela knew exactly what he was doing, how to do it and that he could not have done otherwise.

Displaying neutrality
So as well as listening to the content of the Queen’s Speech on 3rd December, it is also worth close inspection as an object lesson on how to address an audience if you’re ever in a position of having to convey complete neutrality and detachment. Or, if you’d rather rise to the much more usual challenge of trying to inspire your audience, pay close attention to the way she delivers it -- and then do exactly the opposite.

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