Cameron's conference speech high spot: standing ovation for 'surfing applause'

For me (and many in the media), the high spot of David Cameron's speech yesterday was the sequence in which he demononstrated that he can indeed 'surf' applause.

Commentators singled it out as evidence of 'passion', and it was widely replayed on prime-time television news programmes.

The reason why I was pleased to see the technique working so well for him was that, in one of the first posts on this blog, I'd suggested that he was a talented enough speaker to take a step further and have a go at using this important technique from the repertoire of great orators.

Although I hadn't then come across the word 'surfing' to describe the practice of carrying on speaking through applause, I'd discussed it 25 years ago in Our Masters' Voices, on which my blog post of 27 September 2008 was based.

As the odds are that you weren't one of the tiny handful of readers a year ago, here's what I wrote about surfing before David Cameron spoke at last year's Conservative Party conference:


When it comes to speech-making, David Cameron has enjoyed more success than most British politicians of his generation. His short unscripted pitch for the party leadership in 2005 was enough to transform him from rank outsider to eventual winner. And his speech at last year’s conference was so effective that it was arguably one of the factors that helped to deter Gordon Brown from calling an election at a time when Labour were still safely ahead in the polls.

If Mr Cameron has already mastered most of the key techniques that set a good orator apart from an average one, the question arises as to whether there’s anything else he could be doing to take the next step into the premier league? And one thing he might like to consider is the art of surfing applause, a technique that’s only to be found among those at the top of their trade. Past maestros include Martin Luther King and Tony Benn, and today’s most prominent exponents are Nicholas Sarkozy and Barack Obama.

Unlike most speakers, surfers don’t just stop whenever the audience applauds and wait until they’ve finished. What surfers do is to carry on speaking after the applause has started, which creates a number of positive impressions. It makes it look as though you hadn’t been seeking applause at all, and are really quite surprised that the audience has interrupted you with an unexpected display of approval.

Then, if you keep trying to go on while the audience is still clapping, it’s as if you’re telling them that, unlike less passionate politicians, you’re the kind of person who regards getting your message across as much more important than waiting around to savour the applause. If you’re really lucky, and the broadcasters want to put this particular extract on prime time news programmes, the lack of any clean break between your speech and the applause makes it difficult for them to edit without including the adulation of the crowd as well – so that the various positive impressions are transmitted beyond the hall to the much bigger numbers viewing or listening at home.

On the plus side, Mr Cameron is already exhibiting the first signs of surfing in some of his speeches, but needs to carry through with a bit further if he’s to make the most of it. A sign that he was almost ready for fully-fledged surfing came in his 2005 conference speech, when he said:

“That is a stain on this country and this government [applause starts] and what is – [applause stops] -- and what is the government’s answer?”

This was all right as far as it went, but he didn’t have to stop after only a single attempt at carrying on and then wait for the applause to subside before speaking again. More experienced surfers don’t just make one aborted attempt to speak during the applause, but do it several times in a row, as in this example from Barack Obama:

“.. that threatens my civil liberties. [applause starts] It is that fundamental belief – [applause continues] -- It is that fundamental belief -- [applause starts to fade] It is that fundamental belief that I am my brother’s keeper, I am my sister’s keeper, that makes this country work.”

The important thing is to make sure that you don’t say anything that really matters while the noise of the applause might still drown it out, because there’s no point in developing the message until you’re sure it will be audible.

Repeating the first few words, as Obama did in the above example, is probably the easiest and safest way of doing it, but it’s not the only option. Another is to keep adding a few more words each time until the applause has died down enough for people to be able to hear the fully formed sentence you want them to hear. Really experienced surfers develop a finely-tuned ear for the volume of applause that enables them to know exactly when it’s become quiet enough for it to be safe to carry on.

Tony Benn often used to do this three or four times before carrying on with his point, as in this example from the 1980s:

[Applause starts] “My resent – my resentment – my resentment about the - uh- [applause fades] my resentment about the exclusion of the House of Lords …”

Nearly 30 years later, he's still at it

"That's the [applause starts] real distinction that we have to face -- and it's not just -- actually - [applause stops] you can't even give Karl Marx the credit for that."

It might seem, of course that the Conservative Party’s annual conference is far too important and exposed a platform for Mr Cameron to start having a go at surfing the applause. But he has already been showing a natural inclination to do it, and taking it a small step further might not be any bigger risk than his daring departure from the lectern in 2005 –which yielded such a handsome dividend .


A year later, here he is cranking out three rhetorical questions and a powerful contrast between the Tories and Labour - but, unlike in the example HERE, he doesn't back off as soon as the applause gets under way.

Do you know what Labour called it?
Excuse me?
Who has made the poorest poorer?
Who left youth unemployment higher?
Who made inequality greater?
No, not the wicked Tories
You, Labour: you are the ones who have done it to this society.
Don’t you dare lecture us on poverty.
You have failed and it (applause starts) falls the modern Conservative Party to help the poorest in our country today (applause continues and develops into standing ovation).


This year's party conference season was also the first time I'd ever seen Gordon Brown surfing applause, which won him a similarly positive response from media commentators - even though it was so extreme and 'out of character') that it arguably come across as rather contrived (discuss on which HERE):

1 comment:

  1. I was watching for some surfing at the same time and wondering whether he'd rise to the challenge! Does the term surfing, incidentally, come from the notion of a huge wave of applause hitting you? Do you just stand there and soak it up (and look a bit silly standing there, frankly) or do the much more skillful thing of working with the applause?

    It occurred to me that the moment the applause started when the audience had itself been indundated with a wave of: three (arguably four) puzzles and solutions, two contrasting pairs and one list of three. Not bad for a few seconds...


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