Great Speech Writing has watched, scribbled and squirmed throughout the 2011 Party Conference season with a particularly keen eye on the peformance of the three party leaders.
Here’s the post mortem.
Content – The good, the bad and the ugly
Good – A speech that flowed well, linked seamlessly from topic to topic, and led with the clear message that this is a time for Liberals, not extremists.
Bad – The constant bleating that ‘We’re doing a lot really well. But we keep forgetting to tell anyone about it. So we keep losing.’ sounded a little too much like a schoolboy explaining his duff end-of-term report to his parents.
Ugly – the lurking fear that style is defeating substance
Good – A simple narrative written in compelling sound-bites, many of which read better on paper than they actually sounded. Clear on being pro-business, and drew clear line between Tory and Labour economic policy.
Bad – 60 words didn’t seem quite enough to cover the party’s entire foreign policy (and over 50 of those were targeted at our troops).
Ugly – At Great Speech Writing we write many Groom speeches, and there was a horrible moment when we worried that Ed had picked up the wrong script. Surely the time had passed to tell Mrs M in public that he adored her. Even more worrying was when he seemed to be admitting to a serious crush on Harriet Harman.
Good – Seamless links from subject to subject and a running theme of leadership that worked from a speech perspective. Cleverly briefed the media 24 hours earlier than usual to ensure that Boris’ speech was overshadowed.
Bad – Never a great idea to back-track on the content you’ve leaked on the morning of the speech.
Ugly: “I lead to unleash your leadership”. Not quite Disraeli. Or even Ian Duncan Smith.
The key to any great speech is to decide who it is targeted at and to pitch right at them.
Cameron spoke to the outside world via the hall – and appeared Prime Ministerial in the process. Clegg addressed the hall, talked directly to his audience and even thanked them for listening. It worked.
Milliband got very confused. At times he was speaking to the conference. At others to the country when his style was more party political broadcast. And at one stage he just got completely confused by looking at the audience and saying: “I believe in my conversations with you the British people I am determined we restore your trust in us on the economy”. Agghhh!
Those mixed-metaphors in a nutshell (with no armbands)
Nick Clegg – “Don’t apologise because we’ve all opened a door to enable our stick of rock to punch above its weight. But it’s not a walk in the environmentally friendly park full of predators.”
Ed Milliband – “I’m not interested in consolation prizes so we’re going to rip up the old set of rules, which were built on sand under a safety net full of holes, to create a new bargain and write a new chapter.”
David Cameron – “The world’s a mess but under my leadership we’ll turn the British ship round by laying strong foundations to bail out the last Labour government with armbands off.”
Cameron wasn’t. Milliband tried to be. At times Clegg actually was. He managed to sound honest, regretful and upbeat all at once. And which other party leader has ever talked for so long about being disliked? He may also be the first to re-package a quote from a footballer (Roy Keane’s prawn sandwiches).
Cameron was obviously keen not to antagonise his friend Nick, and even used the phrase “Nick Clegg and I” which harked back to the golden days of the Leadership Debate and Gordon’s plaintive “I agree with Nick”.
In fact, Cameron fell so solidly into line with Nick that he didn’t just cut and paste his attack on Labour’s economic policy, but also used some very similar adjectives to describe British values.
And to top it all, he even borrowed Nick’s tie.
There wasn’t much love for Ed – but he gave it out in bucket-loads to his wife, Ed Balls, Harriet Harman and the NHS.
Clegg – From the good: “We are in nobody’s pocket” and “From the easy promises of opposition to the invidious choices of government” to the meaningless: “Our home, our children, our future” to the Partridge-esque: “Masters of the universe became masters of destruction” (the latter met by a notable dearth of applause).
Milliband – The speech was one rolling-sound-bite including: “I’m my own man”, “He betrayed your trust”, “You can’t trust the Tories on the National Health Service” and “Producers versus the predators”. The latter was one of many examples of EM trying to create a distinct ‘good and evil’ feel to the political landscape. And that worked.
Cameron – Light, airy and safe phrases including: “We can turn this ship around”, “We’re going to get Britain back to work” and “our new economy”. “Leadership” was obviously his key theme and word. One half expected him to raise a glove Gary Glitter style, chanting that he was the leader of the gang. Cameron was also keen to appear as international as possible, bouncing from continent to continent in a way that’s only really possible during the draw for the World Cup Finals.
Balance between humour and sincerity
It is vital to create the right balance, but only if the humour works. And most of it was lame.
Clegg was the best, realising that this was a party conference and not an audition for the Comedy Store. His persecution complex lines were good (inspired by Woody Allen?) but he undermined them slightly with one-too-many sycophantic references to conference darling Paddy Ashdown (fast becoming the Liberal Lady T).
Milliband began with a stand-up routine that moved swiftly from brother jokes to “Ed nose day”. But things got even worse with the inevitable Blair-esque popular culture reference: ”The computer says no”. Only a few years too late there Ed. He did make a good quip about Clegg not keeping his promises, but all-in-all there were many too many weak jokes.
Cameron was a disappointment here. Rather than settling for a couple of sharp one-liners, he tried the scatter-gun approach which left him a gap of less than twenty seconds between joking about Boris and “The Joy of … Cycling” (ho ho) to Colonel Gadaffi providing the IRA with semtex (which wasn’t a joke at all but threatened to be). The low-point was the crack about diabetics in the EU. Nope, still not funny.
Clegg dropped-in Gladstone after 5 mins and Ashdown wherever possible. But didn’t mention Ming Campbell. Funny that.
Milliband mentioned Kinnock before he’d drawn breath, and Blair and Brown soon afterwards . To a mixed reaction.
Cameron waited 37 minutess before reeling off a list including Lady T. And that pleased the conference so much, he mentioned her again thirty seconds later.
As clients of Great Speech Writing are well aware, great content is useless without great delivery.
Great delivery means a well paced speech, demonstrating appropriate levels of energy and emotion, and ongoing eye contact with the audience.
Clegg – was the only leader who sounded passionate and appeared to mean it. His body language was a throw back to that first leadership debate – with good movement of the arms helped by a transparent podium that opened him up to the audience.
His long pause for a sip of water after five minutes energised him (was it vodka?), and stepping away from the podium was something only he did – and something that served the dual purpose of making him look relaxed whilst breaking up the monotony of a forty five minute speech.
Interestingly, he spent much time looking to those ahead of him and to his left – but rarely glanced right. Read into that what you will. Perhaps he had cricked his neck?
Milliband – is, sadly, not a born communicator. He has been well trained and spoke slowly and methodically, but he still seems unable to emphasise the right words. This can ruin potentially bold and passionate remarks. Take, for example, his confusing execution of the punch-line “Don’t mess with Rupert Murdoch”, after which we feared that he was about to burst out crying.
Despite his claims that the nose op’ was a success, the nasal whine is still an issue, making his cries for action sound akin to a schoolboy pleading with his teacher for more homework.
Unlike Clegg, his sips of water leave much room for improvement, looking as they do like he is auditioning for a future role playing Mr Bean.
Cameron remains the master of delivery. He decided to present himself as a leader and carried it off. Great eye contact despite the layers of make-up, great movement of the hands and effortless gravitas. His comic pauses were all well-timed despite some appalling material, and he appeared to be in complete command of his material and his audience.
Ten years have passed since Tony Blair’s ‘kaleidoscope’ speech after 9/11 – the greatest conference speech of the past twenty years.
In that time, a new generation of party leaders has emerged. And they share many similarities – from their age and worrying lack of stubble, to their centralist messages and carefully stage-managed performances.
In practise there was not a huge amount to choose between them, but Nick Clegg exceeded expectations and it is always hard for Cameron to live up to his. Milliband’s public speaking record means that he can easily outperform his benchmark, but his delivery still sits far behind the other two.
None of these speeches was exceptional. None will be remembered in ten years time. But casting the politics aside, we have Clegg’s content and delivery ahead of Cameron by a short head.
But if the leaders’ failed to shine particularly brightly, then who did?
Balls versus Osbourne remains the most fascinating duel in British politics. Both value substance over style, and both are genuine heavyweights. Balls will never charm a crowd like any of the party leaders, but his speech was well-written, clear and powerful.
Boris entertained in his unique style, and remains alone in his willingness to be original and break the rules.
Of the younger generation, Labour’s Rory Weal stole the show, winning a gold star for his passion and bravery, and a detention for hackneyed content.
Perhaps he is destined to be the next William Hague – a party conference veteran who is undoubtedly the most devastatingly effective and accomplished public speaker in Westminster. The way he brought to life the graveyard slot at the start of the conference was a lesson to us all.
He may well take us back to the future by becoming the next leader of the party. Other prospective candidates for centre stage include the effective Yvette Cooper and two outside hopefuls in Jeremy Hunt and Jim Murphy- both tall men prowling the stage without notes. Where can they have got that idea from?
Finally, let’s not forget that George Osbourne gave a strong speech that was overshadowed by the freeing of Amanda Knox. And the Prime Minister was knocked-off the front pages by Steve Jobs. There’s no cure for bad timing.
Whilst Theresa May remembered the importance of getting your facts right.
To conclude, it isn’t only politics converging into the centre ground. Speechwriters and coaches are too. We all yearn for the conference speeches of yore, given by politicians with the conviction, imagination and passion to step away from the consultancy template and daring to be original.