State of the Union Address, 2013: Surfing applause to bring about better gun control?

One of the things that impressed me when writing Our Masters' Voices (1984) was former Labour cabinet minister Tony Benn's technical ability to carry on speaking after his audience had started to applaud. It created the impression that he had not been attempting to trigger applause and that he was now having trouble making himself heard because what he'd just said had gone down so well with the audience that they couldn't wait any longer to show their approval.

It's a technique referred to in American English as 'surfing appplause', a phrase that sums it up so well that I wish I'd known it when I first started writing about it. When done well, the audience reaction comes across as unequivocally positive, with speaker and listeners sounding as though they are on exactly the same wavelength.

It was therefore fascinating to see where President Obama took to surfing the applause during this year's State of the Union address - at the point when he starts to identify groups of people and individuals who have suffered from gun violence and who "deserve a vote".

Although it would be nice to think that the president's technical skill at rhetoric and oratory might be enough to get the job of gun control done, I fear that this will never happen - and will be thwarted by the peculiar (and peculiarly) American obsession with 'the right to bear arms'...

Other posts on surfing applause

Waterbottle gate: a reminder about drinking and speaking from Senator Marco Rubio

Since Senator Marco Rubio, an early favourite for the 2016 Republican presidential nomination according to some newspapers responded to President Obama's State of the Union address a few hours ago, he's attracted a good deal of flack on Twitter for the way he grasped for a bottle of water during his speech (about 23 seconds into the above) - in a sequence that's apparently going viral...

Yet all of us who do any public speaking at all know that a glass (rather than a bottle) of water close at hand (rather than a few feet  away and nearly out of reach) is an essential part of your backup equipment.

The awkward, even shifty, way in which Rubio reached for his water may not have been very elegant or well-timed. But it came nowhere close to the disaster I saw some years ago at a Labour Party annual conference.

The speaker was making a long and boring speech about a long and boring composite motion that he was proposing. A cutaway shot of the audience showed that some were reading newspapers, some  were audibly chatting to each other and very few were paying attention.

So when the speaker paused for a drink of water, the audience must have thought he'd finished and promptly started clapping.

But he hadn't finished and thanked them for the applause - before droning on for several more minutes.

UK Business Communicator of the Year, 2013

The UK Speechwriters’ Guild emerged in 2009 to raise the profile of speechwriters and improve standards of speaking in public life. We now have over 100 members. We have launched a prize to be awarded to an outstanding figure in the business world who speaks well.

This is the fourth year that judges from the UK Speechwriters’ Guild have selected the Business Communicator of the Year. The winner in February 2010 was Sir Martin Broughton, Chairman of British Airways. The winner in February 2011 was Geoff Burch, the motivational business speaker and author. The winner in 2012 was Gillian Tett, the financial journalist.

The Business Communicator of the Year receives a small trophy with an engraved plate. This can be presented at the winner’s convenience but we do encourage the winner to receive the award at one of our conferences (London 16 May, Brussels 20 September 2013).

The UK Speechwriters’ Guild hosts regular conferences to showcase top speakers and share knowledge and ideas. Speakers have included Phil Collins, Tony Blair’s former speechwriter, Edward Mortimer, former speechwriter to Kofi Annan and Fred Metcalf, David Frost’s scriptwriter.

The Winner 2013
Most of the business news we’re hearing is gloomy and dispiriting. The advertising executive, Rory Sutherland, has emerged in recent years with entertaining anecdotes and ideas to give entrepreneurs heart and make business fun.
David Ogilvy once said: “I only make a couple of speeches a year but they’re designed to cause the maximum stir on Madison Avenue.”: Mr Sutherland retains some of that provocative flair.
The UK Speechwriters’ Guild has awarded Rory Sutherland the prize of UK Business Communicator 2013 for three reasons:
The first is that he communicates with style. He uses self-deprecating humour to talk about business. He makes dull concepts, colourful, by drawing observations from familiar experience. And he can craft smart one-liners, like: ‘Saving is consumerism needlessly postponed’.
He has a schtick, but he’s always funny, clear and thought-provoking. You don’t mind hearing many of his stories over and over because he tells them rather beautifully. Politicians and CEOs would be wise to copy his formula.
The second reason he gets the prize is because his talks make him a great ambassador for his company. He has expressed a fear of public speaking, but he has overcome it. As Vice Chairman of the Ogilvy Group, he doesn’t make apologies about not representing the views of his employers. His presentations to the Californian conference TED attract millions of viewers, reaching audiences beyond specialists in advertising.
The third reason is because he uses the ancient art of persuasion. His material can be challenging, but he is likeable. He champions psychology over number crunching. He’s the first British business leader we’ve heard quote Charlie Munger, who we think is one of the best American business speakers.
Mr Sutherland‘s good example illustrates how wasteful it is to try to engage audiences with Excel spreadsheets and complex PowerPoint slides. He spreads optimism with insights like, ‘recession is the mother of invention’ and ‘human understanding is the future of business and Government’. These are the kind of sentiments that entertain audiences. Business leaders like Mr Sutherland, who can inspire audiences to try new things, will ultimately lead the way out of recession.

Brian Jenner
Chairman of the Judges, UK Speechwriters’ Guild
February 2013

Another extended press release disguised as a speech - and does it matter?

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Hardly ten days on from seeing David Cameron reading an extended press release on Europe as if it were 'a speech' to an audience (HERE) and we have Chancellor of the Exchequer, George Osborne. doing much the same thing at the offices of JP Morgan in Bournemouth earlier today.

As with the PM's speech, the absence of any coughing, sneezing or applause left me wondering whether there was an audience there at all and whether this is yet another example of a politician reading out a long-winded press release as if it were a speech.

So what?
My blog on this after Cameron's Europe speech prompted an interesting comment on Twitter from speechwriter Sam Coates (@SamuelCoates):

"re: Cameron speech lacking non-media audience, are you in danger of being too purist? Better a speech than press conf/release?"

To which I admitted that perhaps I was being rather too purist and asked "but are you conceding that it was a press release?"

"No" he tweeted "a well-articulated speech seen live by many not in the room. But admittedly not one that had to worry about claptraps etc!"

Speeches as press releases - and does it matter?
From this, it seems that Mr Coates is rather more relaxed about this trend than I am - which gets me wondering whether my unease about politicians reading out what are, in effect, extended press releases to non-partisan audiences is a further reflection of my advanced years (and the relative youthfulness of Mr Coates).

As I asked in my last blog on the subject, "are we going to have to put up with more and more such non-speeches as the stock-in-trade of contemporary political communication?" - to which I'd add "does it matter?"

I'd be glad to hear what others think...