Why was Hilary Benn’s speech so impressive?

Hilary Benn speaking on Syria

Ten hours of debate. Over a hundred speeches. The Prime Minister, leader of the opposition and Foreign Secretary made notable contributions. And yet overwhelming consensus is that Hilary Benn topped them all.

Watch the speech on the Guardian website

Whether it was actually the ‘greatest’ parliamentary speech is questionable (24 hour news lends itself to hyperbole), but it was certainly great. Why?

As regular readers of this blog will be well aware, a speech has two component parts: it’s content and delivery. One without the other either leaves the audience feeling uninspired or cheated. Benn’s had both.

CONTENT

– It started well. He understood that it was vital to set out his high level position with respect to his politics and his party. Thirty seconds into his speech we knew how he would vote, and also how he felt about his Leader and the Prime Minister. Too many speakers take too long to prioritise their message. He set the scene perfectly for what followed.

– He explained complex topics in simple ways. This didn’t patronise, but it ensured that it was easy to follow his points. Detail was used, but only to illustrate a broader point. Therefore, it clarified rather than befuddled. A good example was his forensic explanation of the legal position for air strikes that backed-up a broader, more emotive argument.

– He was rhetorical but never dogmatic. He agreed with his opponents before taking a different line (think Mark Anthony not coming to praise Caesar). As a result, he was able to persuade those who might have been put off by a more one-eyed argument.

– He mastered the difficult balance between objectivity and passion. He clearly believed strongly in defending national interests against a terrorist threat, and in joining in the fight against a common enemy. Yet he balanced his own argument by explaining that air strikes would not win the war.

– He used vivid imagery to paint pictures with his words. The ‘fictional border’ between Iraq and Syria described perfectly in two words the different perception of national boundaries as perceived in the West and on the ground.

– The comparison between Daesh, Franco and Nazism allowed him to draw together all his arguments into a compelling conclusion. It is a comparison that beautifully concluded a well balanced narrative and that enabled him to end with an emotional plea. Doing this by addressing his own party was relevant and clear (the two keys to great public speaking) whilst adding a little spice by straying ever so slightly from Parliamentary convention.

DELIVERY

– He demonstrated that it is possible to read from a script and still appear emotive and focused on one’s audience. His pace was perfect, allowing him to glance down at the next passage before delivering key phrases into the eyes of his audience.

– His body language was strong, emphasising his key points with his right hand, whilst never going over-the-top.

– He managed to sound passionate but calm – not as easy as it sounds! One technique that enabled him to carry this off was to speak in waves – a louder, intense sentence or two, followed by a softer, more detached phrase. Listen to his listing of Daesh atrocities – assertive and hard-hitting – was in stark contrast to the calmer, measured tone that followed immediately after. (Boris Johnston on form is a great exponent of this art).

– He managed to look entirely at ease, despite standing directly in front of the party leader with whom he was disagreeing. Nor, at any stage, did he appear aggressive.

THE COMBINED EFFECT

In short, this was a speech that was very much more than the sum of its parts., and it’s mostly a question of balance. Passionate and yet calm; rhetorical and yet thoughtful; detailed and yet clear; full of style AND substance. All delivered in front of a packed house, live on television, and in direct opposition to his own boss. A great speech.

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