The Art of Political Speechmaking – a dying art or still a vital talent? #imaginebelfast

https://www.qub.ac.uk/research-centres/the-democracy-unitHas the art of writing and delivering a political speech fallen by the wayside of a media landscape that vacuums up soundbites rather than valuing passionate prose?

Next Thursday evening, some local politicians will recite elements of other people’s speeches which have influenced their own political journeys and discuss the importance of speechmaking in the current political climate. It’s part of the Imagine! Festival, and Claire Hanna (SDLP), Deirdre Hargey (Sinn Féin), Emma Little-Pengelly (DUP) and Kate Nicholl (Alliance) are expected to take part – fingers crossed their diaries will cooperate – with William Crawley chairing proceedings.

I spoke to political commentator Alex Kane ahead of the event to get his perspective. He has written plenty of speeches. But he’s sat through – perhaps suffering – many, many more speeches being delivered at party conferences and events. He doesn’t envy the panellists on Thursday having to deliver someone else’s words before they talk about the significance.

“Each speech is crafted for the particular voice of the orator. You have to capture their rhythm and speech patterns. [Speechwriters] know the target audience, they know the purpose, they know the context … But try putting any major speech in the past 50 or 60 years into someone else’s voice and it won’t work. Imagine John Major trying to do Churchill’s ‘We will fight them on the beaches’ … it doesn’t work.”

He warns that some of what we think is good oratory, is just rising above the dross.

“As someone who, who has made speeches, and someone who writes speeches, there’s an art involved in both. And very few people have that because if they did, we would be falling over ourselves. Sometimes I think good speeches are remembered simply because most of what we get – it’s not that it’s bad, it’s not even humdrum, it’s just we know exactly what’s coming.”

Speechmaking has radically changed in the last century.

“If you go back to just after the Second World War, papers like The Times and the Daily Telegraph might give two big broadside sheets to a speech because they expected people to read [the whole thing].”

You couldn’t read a transcript in Hansard online. But a newspaper could still make the whole content available.

“So the words mattered. Nowadays, it’s the soundbite speech, which I hate. Because the politician doesn’t expect it to be read in its entirety by anybody, including their own family! But also they know that if it gets into the news, it’ll just be one paragraph, if that, that is featured.”

How they’re written has changed too.

“Maybe up until the mid-seventies, speeches were written by one person. Nowadays, speeches are written and then they’re sent off to people in various departments, various policy people, and then [tweaked] to maximise the impact. I think that’s one of the tragedies of speechwriting … In each speech, they’ll say, ‘that’s the bit that will appear in the Guardian, that’s the bit that will appear in the Sun’ which changes the whole nature of how you write a speech.”

Soundbites can be a curse in the age of television and social media.

“People can lift something out of a speech – one line – and that can suddenly dominate the news agenda, even though in essence it might have been a throwaway line.”

And whereas, back in the day, “you made the speech, you made the policy, because you expected people to follow you”, nowadays politicians – some of Sir Jeffrey Donaldson’s recent pronouncements were at the forefront of our minds – will be deliberately aiming different parts of their address at different audiences. One side will be fed a ‘we have achieved this, we are going to stand firm’ while another faction are being told ‘devolution matters to us: it we lose devolution that’s dangerous to the Union’.

“Quite often in a speech, you’re giving contradictory messages.”

Here are some golden principles for good political speeches I’ve derived from the remainder of our conversation …

Good speeches aren’t delivered in a vacuum.

“The best speeches are speeches which people come out to hear. It’s needs to be live. You need the ‘smell’ of an audience. You need the sight of an audience … If you ask people to compile the best speeches of the past hundred years, the vast majority will be speeches given to a live audience, and often where there were no TV cameras.

“When you’re in front of a live audience, you’re naked in the amphitheatre or the bearpit, it’s you versus that crowd who may love you, who may hate you, or may love and hate you at both the same time.”

Good speeches aren’t planned to the nth degree.

“Someone who wants to make a speech that’s remembered won’t because you start thinking about all the wrong things. It’ll sound contrived. A speech is remembered because people see the passion.

“That’s why Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address is remembered because nobody was expecting it. They just expected, ‘oh, well done to all of them, blah, blah, blah’. But no matter how you read that speech, there is that sense of [the audience being taken by surprise]. And I think that why it was memorable because Lincoln wasn’t praising anyone. He wasn’t taking a side. In a sense, he was simply saying, this is where my country is.”

Big orators like Tony Benn, Denis Healey, Michael Foot and Enoch Powell could speak from the briefest of notes. The days of “really powerful, honest to God speeches” are gone admits Alex. Now, politicians are more likely to have the whole text printed out in front of them, aware that “every word, every nuance” will be picked up on camera. It’s no longer from the heart.

Good speeches are mostly penned by the orator.

“The best speeches are ones that you mostly write yourself to deliver yourself. The speech writer is there to help you, but it’s best coming from you personally. It’s not [the voice of the] speech writer, it’s not a policy advisor, it’s not a special adviser. It’s the [orator]. That’s what works with audiences.

“You can tell a bad speech, not simply by how it’s delivered, but when you think that it’s been written by someone who hasn’t actually bothered to listen to how the person has delivered previous speeches. Do you stop with the punctuation, the commas, the full stop? Do you gesticulate? You have to be careful they’ll not gesture for the wrong reason.”

Good speeches are passionate.

“What you can do is channel passion … If the audience believes that you believe it, even though they don’t entirely agree with you, but if they believe that you believe this, believe it so much that you’re willing to go [out on a limb to say it] … You make a brilliant speech because the moment comes with that particular audience where you make a connection.

“[So often] social media and televising things has taken the sheer emotion out of everyday politics.

If Alex had one piece of advice for modern day speechmakers?

“Just be you. Talk about parts of your life and people will be able to get a picture of you.”

Some tickets are still available for The Art of Political Speechmaking which begins in Crescent Arts Theatre on Thursday 21 March at 5pm. The event is supported by the QUB Democracy Unit.

And if you see Alex, don’t get him started on the standard of speeches at the Oscars! In the meantime, have any political speeches influenced you?


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