Delayed applause at a key point in Nick Clegg's conference speech

The way in which journalists monitor applause in political speeches and use it as a basis for assessing the effectiveness or otherwise of a speech is something that's fascinated me since writing Our Masters' Voices more than 25 years ago.

So I checked to see what columnists in The Guardian which had, after all, backed the LibDems at the election, thought of the Deputy Prime Minister's speech yesterday at the Liberal Democrat Conference.

Nor, given what I'd seen of it, was I surprised to find '..they gave him polite applause but no more than that' from Jackie Ashley and '.. it was telling that the silences came in the wrong places' from Julian Glover.

Apart from the fact that there were quite a few places where the audience refrained from applauding lines that should have been applauded, I was also struck by the fact that there were also quite a few instances of longish delays before the audience managed to get their hands apart.

Applause should be instant or early
The point about delayed applause is that, when the script and delivery are working well together, it should happen within a split second of the speaker finishing a sentence.

That's why contrasts and three-part lists are so effective, because they project a clear completion point where everyone knows in advance where the finish line is and that it's now their turn to respond - as happened after the third item in this 1987 speech by Paddy Ashdown when he was education spokesman for the Liberal-SDP Alliance:

Interruptive applause
Better still is to get the audience to start applauding early, because it gives the impression that they're so enthusiastic and eager to show their agreement that they can't wait - and the speaker ends up having to compete to make himself heard above the rising tide of popular acclaim.

One way to do that is to use a three part list, in which the third item is longer than the first two. So in this clip, the audience starts applauding Tony Blair just after he's finished the second of three items:

Delayed applause
In conversation, silences of anything more than about a fifth of a second before a next speaker starts to speak usually mean that some sort of trouble is on its way (refusals, disagreements, etc.).

In political speeches too, silence before the applause starts is not only noticeable, but also tends to create a rather negative impression - and the longer it lasts, the worse the impression is.

In response to the following question in Nick Clegg's speech yesterday, it takes the audience the best part of two seconds before they start to respond.

This may, of course, have had something to do with the fact that posing a question and leaving it to the audience to come up with a positive reply certainly isn't the most effective technique for winning applause*.

But the impression of a loyalist audience that's hesitant or reluctant to agree with the party's decision to join a coalition is not, I presume, the impression that the leadership wanted to get across.

* Details of the most effective techniques and how to use them are described in my book Lend Me Your Ears: All You Need to Know about Making Speeches and Presentations (2004), Chapters 6-8).

P.S. A few hours after posting this, I received an email from someone who is at the LibDem Conference in Liverpool and who, as far as I know, I've never met before. It read as follows:

'Out of interest, the response in the overflow room where we didn't have any cameras on us was considerably more muted ... Might be true in all situations, but it was pretty noticeable.'


TJ Walker said...

Max, brilliant analysis on how a pause before applause is a sign of trouble for a speaker. You continue to give the most sophisticated speaking analysis around!

Max Atkinson said...

TJ: Very kind of you to say so. I sometimes get the feeling that I'm banging the same old drum and wonder whether it's worth carrying on with the blog. So comments like this - for which thanks - are an incentive to stick at it!

Highway Kind said...

I think it is less the audience than the structure of the speech. It is a weak applause point. I think the audience only realised it was one because Nick Clegg paused.

After "Imagine if we had turned away" I expected a little bit more imagining. The pause was too soon. The idea had not been developed