During the last 20 minutes of David Cameron's conference speech this week, his hit rate was one burst of applause every eighteen sentences - a paltry one sixth of that achieved by his illustrious predecessor.
What's more, the more he talked about 'the big society', the more the applause rate fell. In the penultimate 10 minutes of the speech where he starts to move on to the subject (excerpt 1 below), the average applause rate was once every ten sentences.
Then, in the final 10 minutes when he really gets into it (excerpt 2 below), the rate went down to once every thirty sentences - one tenth of that for Mrs Thatcher in her prime.
Why such a muted response?
Closer inspection might reveal that part of the low applause rate could be explained by the fact that Cameron's delivery was more rushed than usual - and therefore didn't leave enough slots for the audience to come in. But that wouldn't account for more than a tiny fraction of the absences.
So, if the Conservative leadership's idea of the 'big society' is supposed to assert brand differentiation from Thatcher's 'no such thing as society', it's difficult not to conclude that their activists in the hall were neither impressed nor convinced by the concept.
But they, of course, may not have been the primary audience that he's trying to bring on board.
Excerpt 1: Penultimate 10 minutes
Excerpt 2: Final 10 minutes
Other posts on the 2010 party conference season:
- Delayed applause at a key point in Nick Clegg's conference speech
- Party conference season prize competition
- Delayed applause in Vince Cable's speech (at same point as in Clegg's)
- More lessons from Vince Cable's speech
- Labour Party leaders' acceptance speeches" Neil Kinnock, 1983; Ed Miliband, 2010
- Ed Miliband "gets it" in his bid to bond with the brethren
- Did David Miliband lose because he was too old and experienced?
- Delayed applause for Ed Miliband's claims on the 'centre ground'
- 'Clap on the name': a practical tip for Ed Miliband and/or his speechwriters
- Delayed applause for William Hague's boast about being in government
- What a peculiar Tory backdrop, Part 2: What do the flags mean?
- Tories 'Bomb Middle England' - by Banksy
- Delayed applause, poor speech writing & delivery strike again in Osborne's speech
- Delayed applause for Cameron's government - from the Conservatives!
Part of the difference - but only part of it - may be due to a tendency towards shorter sentences in political speeches. Cameron averaged 14 words per sentence to Thatcher's 21 in 1981. Her points simply took fewer sentences to make.
Max, isn't it possible the audience was as impressed or even more impressed with Cameron, but that they were giving his ideas such a respectful listening they didn't want to interrupt with applause? Politicians like applause, but it's not the only sign of approval.
Tom: This sounds interesting. Hadn't heard of the tendency towards shorter sentences. Is this a finding of yours, and is it published anywhere?
TJ: It's possible, I suppose, but strikes me as unlikely. And, in the context of conference speeches, what other unequivocal signs of approval are there - other than applause, cheering and shouts of "here here"?
In any case, such extended periods of silence are quite unusual and get noticed by the media during leaders' speeches. To me, it seems more likely that the audience found it as difficult as the rest of us to figure out exactly what he means by the 'big society'.
It isn't a finding, I'm afraid, just a guess. Blair became quite notorious for short sentences and I've observed Cameron has the same habit. And it might be that there's a wider tendency - if other politicians have tried to emulate these two supposedly great communicators.
The two numbers I mention are ones I've checked myself - a hunch paying off, but nothing more than a pair of case studies.
(Brown, I'd guess, is not a short sentences man...)
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