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Conference Speeches 2011: Who Won?
Content – The good, the bad and the ugly
Clegg Good – A speech that flowed well, connected 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 are doing very very 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 dormant fear that style defeats substance
Milliband Good – A simple narrative written in engaging sound bites, many of which read better on paper than they actually sounded. Clear to be pro-business, and drew a clear line between Tory and Labor economic policy. Bad – 60 words didn’t seem quite enough to cover the party’s entire foreign policy (and more than 50 of those were aimed at our troops). Ugly – At Great Speech Writing, we write a lot of Groom speeches, and there was an awful moment when we were worried that Ed had picked up the wrong script. After all, the time had passed to tell Mrs M publicly that he adored her. Even more troubling was when he seemed to admit to having a serious crush on Harriet Harman.
Cameron Good – Seamless links from topic to topic and a running theme of leadership that worked from a speaking perspective. The media were cleverly briefed 24 hours earlier than usual to ensure that Boris’s speech was overshadowed. Bad – Never a good idea to backtrack on the content you 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 deciding who it’s aimed at and speaking right to them.
Cameron spoke to the outside world via the hall – and appeared as prime minister in the process. Clegg addressed the hall, talking directly to his audience and even thanking them for listening. It worked. Milliband got very confused. Sometimes he spoke to the conference. At others to the country when his style was more party political broadcasting. And at one stage he just got completely confused by looking at the audience and saying: “I believe in my discussions with you the British people, I am determined that we will restore your confidence in us on the economy”. Aghhhh!
Those Mixed Metaphors in a Nutshell (With No Bracelets)
Nick Clegg – “Don’t apologize because we all opened a door to allow our rock stick 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, built on sand under a safety net full of holes, to create a new bargain and write a new chapter.”
David Cameron – “The world is a mess, but under my leadership we will turn the British ship around by laying strong foundations to save the last Labor government with bracelets.”
Cameron was not. Milliband tried to be. At times Clegg actually was. He managed to sound honest, regretful and upbeat all at once. And what other party leader has talked about being disliked for so long? He could also be the first to repackage a quote from a footballer (Roy Keane’s prawn sandwiches).
Cameron was obviously keen not to antagonize his friend Nick, even using the phrase “Nick Clegg and I” which harkened back to the golden days of the Leadership Debate and Gordon’s plaintive “I agree with Nick”. In fact, Cameron fell so firmly in line with Nick that he not only cut and pasted his attack on Labour’s economic policies, but also used some similar adjectives to describe British values. And to top it all off, he even borrowed Nick’s tie. There wasn’t much love for Ed – but he gave it in bucket loads to his wife, Ed Balls, Harriet Harman and the NHS.
Unforgettable sound bites
Clegg – From the good: “We are in nobody’s pocket” and “From the easy promises of opposition to the sinister choices of the government” to the meaningless: “Our home, our children, our future” to the Partridge-like: “Masters of the universe have become masters of destruction” (the latter received a notable lack of applause). Milliband – The speech was one reel 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 attempting to create a distinct ‘good and evil’ sense of the political landscape. And it 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 pick up a Gary Glitter-style gauntlet and sing that he was the leader of the gang. Cameron was also keen to appear as internationally as possible, hopping from continent to continent in a way that is only really possible during the World Cup finals draw.
Balance between humor and sincerity
It is essential to create the right balance, but only if the humor works. And most of it was lame. Clegg was the best, realizing that this was a party conference and not an audition for the Comedy Store. His prosecution complex lines were good (inspired by Woody Allen?) but he undermined them slightly with one-too-many sycophantic references to conference darling Paddy Ashdown (quickly becoming the Liberal Lady T).
Milliband started with a stand-up routine that quickly moved from bro jokes to “Ed nose day”. But things got even worse with the inevitable Blair-esque popular culture reference: “The computer says no”. Just a few years late there is Ed. He did make a good quip about Clegg not keeping his promises, but overall there were too many bad jokes.
Cameron was a disappointment here. Rather than settle for a few snappy one-liners, he tried the straw-gun approach which left him with a gap of less than twenty seconds between jokes about Boris and “The Joy of… Cycling” (ho ho) to Colonel Gadaffi to supply the IRA with semtex (which was not a joke at all, but threatened to be). The low point was the crackdown on diabetics in the EU. No, still not funny.
Clegg subbed Gladstone after 5 minutes and Ashdown where possible. But didn’t mention Ming Campbell. Funny that. Milliband mentioned Kinnock before he took a breath, and Blair and Brown soon after. To a mixed reaction. Cameron waited 37 minutes before pulling off a list with Lady T. And it pleased the conference so much that thirty seconds later he called her again.
As clients of Great Speech Writing are well aware, great content is useless without great delivery. Good delivery means a well-paced speech, demonstrating appropriate levels of energy and emotion, and continuous eye contact with the audience.
Clegg – was the only leader who sounded passionate and seemed to mean it. His body language was a throwback to that first leadership debate – with good arm movement aided by a transparent podium that opened him up to the audience. His long break for a sip of water after five minutes energized him (was it vodka?), and walking away from the podium was something only he did – and something that served the dual purpose of making him feel relaxed. to seem while he the monotony of a speech of forty-five minutes. Interestingly, he spent a lot of time looking at those in front of him and to his left – but rarely looked to the right. Read into it what you want. Maybe he cracked his neck?
Milliband – is unfortunately not a born communicator. He was well trained and spoke slowly and methodically, but he still seemed unable to emphasize the right words. This can ruin potentially bold and passionate comments. Take, for example, his confusing performance of the punch line “Don’t mess with Rupert Murdoch”, after which we feared he was about to cry. Despite his claims that the nose job was a success, the nasal whine is still a problem, making his cries for action sound like a schoolboy pleading with his teacher for more homework. Unlike Clegg, his sips of water leave plenty of room for improvement, as he appears to be auditioning for a future role playing Mr Bean.
Cameron – remain the master of delivery. He decided to present himself as a leader and took it down. Good eye contact despite the low makeup, good movement of the hands and effortless gravitas. His comic breaks were all well timed despite some atrocious material, and he seemed to be in complete control of his material and his audience.
Ten years have passed since Tony Blair’s post-9/11 ‘kaleidoscope’ speech – the biggest conference speech of the last twenty years. At that time a new generation of party leaders emerged. And they share many similarities – from their age and alarming lack of stubble, to their centrist messages and carefully stage-managed performances. In practice there hasn’t been a huge amount to choose between them, but Nick Clegg has exceeded expectations and it’s always difficult for Cameron to live up to his. Milliband’s public speaking record means he can easily outperform his benchmark, but his delivery still lags far behind the other two. None of these speeches were exceptional. No one will be remembered in ten years. But politics aside, we have Clegg’s substance 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. Balle will never captivate a crowd like any of the party leaders, but his speech was well written, clear and powerful. Boris entertains in his unique style, and stands alone in his willingness to be original and break the rules. From 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 able public speaker in Westminster. The way he brought the graveyard slot to life at the start of the conference was a lesson to us all. He could very well take us back to the future by becoming the next leader of the party. Other potential candidates for center stage include the effective Yvette Cooper and two outside hopefuls in Jeremy Hunt and Jim Murphy – both tall men who walk around the stage without notes. Where can they get that idea from? Finally, let’s not forget that George Osbourne gave a strong speech that was overshadowed by the release of Amanda Knox. And the Prime Minister was knocked off the front pages by Steve Jobs. There is no cure for bad timing. While Theresa May remembered the importance of getting your facts right.
To conclude, it is not only politics that converge in the middle ground. Speech writers and coaches are too. We all yearn for the conference speeches of yesteryear, delivered by politicians with the conviction, imagination and passion to step away from the consultation template and dare to be original.
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