“If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his language, that goes to his heart.”
This may be the only article you read this week that will introduce the rhetoric and success of Donald Trump and Nigel Farage with a quote from Nelson Mandela. But I am here to analyse the speeches, not the politics.
It is no secret that the key to an impactful speech is relevance. Recent events have proved that in the modern political world, ‘relevance’ means talking directly to your target audience in their language, voicing their concerns, and demonstrating barrels of empathy in the process.
That’s not rocket science. But the times they are a changing. Not so long ago, crowds would gather to listen to political speeches expecting a seamless structure, clever wordplay and evidence to back-up each argument. Subtlety and nuance had real power. Think Nye Bevan. Kennedy. Clinton (Bill!). Think Ronald Reagan’s campaign-defining ‘inexperience’ put-down of Walter Mondale.
And then along came social media. Followed by the financial crashes and crunches of the past decade. In unison, these allowed a growing distrust of – and disrespect for – the political classes to spread virally. Heckling and satire were replaced by ranting and trolling. And not only on social media. Compare Robin Day’s interviewing Margaret Thatcher to Jeremy Paxman bullying David Cameron. The context is different.
Slowly but surely, the voting public has begun to rebel. Against globalisation, against the status quo, against the political elite, and against political correctness.
Those public speakers who have understood this and adapted to it, have won. “We’re sick of experts”. “We’re at breaking point.” Guess who? Suffice to say that they’ve been repeated ad nauseam by the Brexit and Trump camps. From Gove and Johnson to Trump and Pence. Politicians who have surfed the wave of disaffection and who, in the process, have adapted the age-old rules of public speaking to the modern political landscape.
Politicians have always tried to ‘get it’. But this year’s winners have managed to connect with their audiences on an emotional level. They have done it by targeting their core voters and appealing to them. Even if it means angering everyone else. It’s classic retail marketing – better to create a passionate response (for and against you) than apathy. The Marmite effect.
Amazingly, they have been able to exploit the general disaffection with the political class by blatantly ignoring the truth to make their point. The Leave campaign knew there would not be £350 million a week for the NHS. Trump is not going to build a wall. But the facts are ignored if the audience finally hears someone telling them what they want to hear. And repetition has become a core element of the new rhetoric.
Traditionally this was just a joke or an anecdote to ease the audience into the more formal speech. Now it is an end in itself. Let’s build a wall. Let’s divert £350m per week into the NHS. The opening gambit has become the hook, line and sinker. If you repeat it enough, it will stick.
OK, the Gettysburg address may have been less than 300 words, but it was the exception. A political speech was once only credible if it was long and detailed. But speeches are getting shorter and punchier. So are the sentences within them which have become interchangeable with soundbites. ‘Yes we can’, ‘Make America Great Again’ and ‘Independence Day’ would once have been defined as slogans. Now they are sentences. Repeated again and again and again. Because YouTube, Twitter and Facebook love a link to something short, smart and memorable.
Ever listened to the entire Budget speech? It’s hard work. So much detail that it’s almost impossible to summarise immediately afterwards. Which is why Gordon Brown tried to summarise it using ‘prudence’. And why George Osborne repeated ‘a budget for working people’. They got the principle, but the protest generation have gone a step further by removing the vast majority of the content in favour of repeating the priority messages again and again, often without feeling the need to contextualise at all.
Trump, Brexit and, dare one say it, Marine le Pen, have stripped away the rhetorical flourishes, the adjectives and the poetry. What remains is a series of statements in language that sets them apart from the educated elite. Hard, simple and impossible to misconstrue. It has been said that one is elected on poetry and governs on prose. That now sounds like an observation from another age.
Where does this leave us? The bad (and sad) conclusion is that your speeches can include errors, lies and plagiarism. They can be full of unfinished sentences and unfulfillable promises. And you can still win – possibly as a direct result.
But there are positive lessons to learn. Brexit and Trump demonstrate that if you think about your audience first, speak in their language, keep it simple, and don’t suffocate your speech with detail, then anything is possible.