Last week I spoke to a group of speechwriters. Several people have asked if I would post my speech, which took as its subject “Politics, Speeches & Audiences in the Age of Celebrity”. Here's an abbreviated version...
The best speeches are made like I sing in the shower. With no notes. Anne Widdecombe taught me that. Let me pause for a moment, while that image sinks in...
When was the last time you heard a political speech, and you thought, "wow"! It probably wasn’t made in the House of Commons, it probably wasn’t at a political conference. And I suspect it was made by Barack Obama. Obama is a politician who has a unique ability to use rhetoric to whip up an audience into an almost orgasmic frenzy of optimism and hope. Why is that? Why can he do what no British politician seems able to? Inspire.
I do think it has something to do with the way Americans are completely unembarrassable at the way they use language. They allow rhetoric to soar away into areas that would be no go areas for most British politicians, whose use of language tends to be functional and pedestrian to say the least. In recent years in this country, only Tony Blair has attempted to use language and rhetoric to reinforce a political message. Obama is the Ronald Reagan of his generation, at least in terms of the ability to make a speech which lives on in the memory.
The thread which binds the two is the ability to act, and the possession of the golden halo of celebrity. Reagan and Obama are of course politicians, but people – and I am not just talking about devoted, diehard fans – people see them on a different plane to ordinary mortal politicians. And that is in part because of their ability to act, to ham up, to convince.
But let’s not go too far. Both Obama and Reagan were capable of making perfectly ordinary speeches too. Not every speech was a masterpiece, but when the occasion called for it, they could rise to it. Think of Reagan after the Challenger Space Shuttle blew up.
"The crew of the space shuttle Challenger honoured us by the manner in which they lived their lives. We will never forget them, nor the last time we saw them, this morning, as they prepared for the journey and waved goodbye and 'slipped the surly bonds of earth' to 'touch the face of God."
You could just about imagine Tony Blair saying that, but any other British politician? I doubt it.
Of course, they weren’t Reagan’s words. They were Peggy Noonan’s, probably the finest speechwriter of her generation – and if you haven’t read her book WHAT I SAW AT THE REVOLUTION, you should.
Obama’s speeches are also not entirely his own, but one incredibly important aspect of Obama’s success and Reagan’s is that their respective speechwriting teams managed to get inside their heads. They knew what their subjects were thinking or would think – and that I think is a large part of what makes a successful speech.
Successful politicians know their own minds, and successful speechwriters know them too. A framework still needs to be set for the speech, and that’s up to the politician, but then it’s time for the speechwriters to get to work. As relationships develop and confidence grows, a system evolves. A degree of mutual confidence is established.
But what when it all goes wrong. Some of you may know that I was chief of staff to David Davis during the Conservative leadership contest. I was never a speechwriter, but I saw at close hand how not to run a speechwriting team. There were too many people involved, who often disagreed with each other about policy issues. That mattered because in retrospect it is clear that they were not given a clear enough steer of what David wanted to say, and they didn’t know his views well enough. Was that their fault or his? Perhaps it was mine for not gripping the process.
But what was Cameron’s appeal at the same conference? That he was young? That he could make a speech with no notes? Indeed, it seemed to have been the latter. Making that speech, seemingly off the cuff took some balls of steel. But all he was doing was emulating what Ann Widdecombe had done at the same conference seven years earlier. And Cameron has used the same technique twice since, at the conference in Autumn 2007 just before the election that never was, and just recently at their Spring Forum in Brighton. But it’s a party trick which can look a little jaded if it is deployed too often. Cameron seems to use it when he has his back against the wall.
Other members of the Shadow Cabinet have started to do it too. And in a way it has freshened up politics. Welcome to the Age of Political Informality. Giving a set piece speech like this with no notes sends several subliminal messages. Hey, look, no notes is the less subliminal one. I’m as good as Dave! I’m one of you. I could present the Jeremy Kyle show is another message.
The problem is, if you do a setpiece speech like that with no notes, as a politician you take several risks.
1. You forget to announce a major policy.
2. You announce a policy you hadn’t intended to
3. You announce a policy that isn’t policy
4. You annoy your speechwriters because you forget to say the best lines they had written for you.
But people are always impressed if you don’t use notes. They will never realise all the bits you forgot to say or all those bits you added in because they just came into your head. But it doesn’t always work.
I don’t have the luxury of a speechwriter. But over a number of years I have worked out what works for me. I’ve done a number of parliamentary selections in recent years, where I have half an hour to impress the selectorate - a 5 or 10 minute speech followed by questions. I normally never script these speeches on the basis that if you can’t speak for 5 minutes without notes you ought not to be in the game. I normally think of a couple of things I want them to understand, think of one funny line and just go in and do it. It works well normally, but a few weeks ago I was in the running, against 5 others for East Surrey.
I broke the habit of a lifetime and took advice from a candidate who had just won a selection. “They’re looking for a cabinet minister,” she said. “They want weight and gravitas. Write a speech and memorise it.” And that’s where the alarm bell should have rung. I’m not very good at memorising anything, let alone 5 minutes worth of weighty prose. Anyway, to cut a long story short, it didn’t go well. Most of the words came out, but not necessarily in the right order. My delivery was therefore stilted as I tried to get back on track. It wasn’t a disaster, but I was only operating at about 50% capacity.
Publicly, I put it down to an off day at the office, but in reality it was because I broke a winning formula. It won’t happen again.
The problem politicians face nowadays is that unless they are a grade 1 premier league celeb politician, they can make the greatest speech ever, but no one is listening. The media pack are only interested in the party leaders. If you are a front bencher you really have to go that extra mile to get noticed, and if you are a backbencher, well forget speechmaking. Go on Celebrity Fit Club.
So being a speechwriter for a politician is one of the most thankless jobs in Britain. Fern Britton’s dietician has an easier time of it. You’d get more job satisfaction out of being Stacey Slater’s gynaecologist. And it’s because we are all searching for an audience, and the audience is searching for inspiration. The age of celebrity is here but no one in politics has yet determined what it means for political oratory.
We’re constantly told that people’s attention span is only a couple of minutes nowadays – which is why we constantly hear from radio & TV interviewers that very irritating phrase “I’m sorry, that’s all we’ve got time for”. In the House of Commons there is now a rule that backbench speeches must last no longer than 10 minutes – sometimes 5. You try explaining the differences between Labour’s macro fiscal approach and their micro fiscal policy in less than 5 minutes.
Most political speeches can only ever hope to garner a maximum 20 seconds on the evening news, so the need for inspiring rhetoric throughout a speech goes out of the window. Our habits in media consumption are dictating the kinds of speeches we get from our politicians. 120 years ago, tens of thousands of people would be happy to stand for hours and listen to Gladstone. And it would be a speech of uniform rhetorical quality from start to finish. Nowadays if a politician gets an audience of one hundred to make a 20 minute speech to he thinks he is on a winner.
But we are rapidly approaching the day when political speeches may be a thing of the past. Candidate selections now concentrate on the ability to interview rather than the ability to speak. As MPs come to terms with the internet as a means of communicating, the role of the speech in political communication will diminish even further. Politicians, in the end, will seek out their audience. And the internet provides a willing audience. They used to turn up their noses at bloggers who got 500 readers a day. But when you ask them how many times they have addressed an audience of 500, they look at you blankly, until suddenly, a light goes on.
So most politicians will have fewer and fewer opportunities to make speeches. Maybe in the council chamber, or the chamber of the House of Commons or to their constituency AGMs.
For speechwriters this is a dire situation, as the opportunities for paid work diminish by the year. Or at least, that’s the way I see it. I regret it because I think inspirational speechmaking is an incredible way of engaging people in politics. I remember the reason I joined the Conservative Party in 1978 was because of a speech I had heard Margaret Thatcher make. I can imagine an 18 year old Iain Dale in Wichita, Kansas did the same a couple of years ago listening to Barack Obama.
I still live in hope that the whole country may, one day, have the same experience.