13 February 2013

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