Are increasing demands on politicians to rapidly respond to events compromising the quality and impact of the speeches they deliver? This was a question considered in a recent discussion at London’s Almeida Theatre.
Former British prime minister William Gladstone would give just four big strategic speeches a year and you would hear very little from him in between. How things have changed. Nowadays, politicians not only have more to talk about but also a veritable smorgasbord of communication options – from keynote speeches to Twitter, press releases to direct mail.
Unfortunately, quantity does not equate to quality. Let’s face it, most of what they are saying isn’t memorable and soon disappears from our consciousness. So are they actually doing themselves more harm than good?
At the Centre for Public Impact, we’re interested in the best ideas winning out, but for this to happen, they have to be communicated effectively. How can politicians (and others) deliver powerful and impactful speeches today? These were the panellists’ top tips:
- You have to believe what you are saying – if you give a lacklustre speech, with little intonation in your delivery, it’s unlikely that people are going to buy into what you are saying.
- Sometimes not being a polished speech maker can be charming – but if you think that you fall into this bracket, don’t try and use it as a rhetorical tool. Going on and on about it for effect feels inauthentic and has the potential to backfire.
- The best speeches are those that have a moment – they are said at a special time. This is part of the problem with the way that many politicians deliver speeches today – they are too frequent and are not tied to anything significant.
- The task of the writer is to find the authentic voice of who you are writing for – one of the panellists at the discussion was Phillip Collins, who served as chief speechwriter for former British prime minister Tony Blair. Collins recounted Blair’s amazing knack at spotting a poetic phrase in a speech and taking it out. The reason being that he didn’t feel comfortable with it – his background as a lawyer meant he preferred non-fluffy forensic rhetoric.
- If you are trying to change people’s minds, get on their side somehow. Too often in speeches, people are simply just rallying their own troops, inducing tribal solidarity and not much else. In order to persuade, you need to find the common ground with those who may disagree with you.
- How do you make a speech memorable? Tell them what you’re going to say, say it and then tell them what you’ve said. One of the oldest rhetorical tricks, and also one of the best.
- And finally, make your audience laugh. As the journalist, Sam Leith pointed out, even if they disagree with your argument, you will have the audience at least a little bit on your side by the end if you have made them laugh.
Almeida Questions: Have politicians lost the Art of Persuasion? A panel discussion in association with the New Statesman, with Amanda Abbington, Sam Leith, Philip Collins, Darren Siah and Helen Lewis (panel chair)