Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Speechwatch: Nick Clegg, LibDem Autumn Conference 2012

Here's my instant review on Nick Clegg's speech to the LibDem Conference in Brighton, September 26th 2012. It was a tough speech to deliver, with the LibDems plummeting in the polls, cracks appearing in the coalition government, and the economy still flat-lining.

The overall tone was serious, though he did make the effort to deliver some funny lines. Not many politicians have the timing or the material to generate belly laughs, but the line about being praised by Boris Johnson was at least adequate. The line "To make blue go green you have to add yellow" was even flagged as a bad joke by Mr Clegg himself, and during the laugh he remarked "what a lovely audience". Politicians should never try to be stand-ups.

He began - after the smooth video that has become de rigeur at party conferences - by harking back to the Olympics, dropping the names of a few gold medallists, and using the analogy that everyone needs a coach, and a strong team behind them. I'm not sure where he was going with that one, but he then flipped to contrast 2012 with 2011, when there were riots in cities around the UK. He then used the rhetorical device of antistrophe in the phrase "When the images beamed to the world were not of athletes running for the finishing line, but the mob, running at police lines.". Ah - it was a set up for a sound bite.

The stage set-up was interesting too. Almost in the round, with a smattering of diverse faces behind him, perhaps to overcome the impression given by watching the parade of conference speakers that LibDems are mostly white middle class men.

There were personal stories - they always draw applause, and plenty more Olympic references. He spoke strongly and confidently, delivering the claptraps well (no offence, they are lines included to induce applause). However, after a brisk start, it all got a bit bogged down in economic detail and gloom, a bit like some of David Cameron's speeches. Actually if you close your eyes and listen to Nick Clegg, it's hard to tell him apart from David Cameron. Actually, when both are at full throttle, they are indistinguishable.

He fluffed a few strong lines "Let's no - er let's take no more lectures...". "admitting, admittering.." Generally, his pacing was good, and he hit most of his marks.

The audience response was muted throughout. Even the section on green issues, a topic many LibDems used to be passionate about, was met with polite applause. The central core of the speech was an attempt to set out what LibDems stand for - strong on education, evidenced by extra funding for children falling behind in maths or English. A popular move, at least in the hall. The phrase "We're raising the bar, but ensuring every child can clear it too" must have worried and puzzled any teachers listening.

He didn't refer to his apology over tuition fees, other than to lament that his single had not reached the top ten. That video was clearly designed to get the issue out of the way before this speech.

The biggest cheer was the announcement of Paddy Ashdown as the chair of the 2015 election team. Do the faithful prefer him to Nick? Oops.

In his final words, he managed to hark back to David Steel's "prepare for government" sound bite. It got a groan. then an apologetic laugh. By the way, Nick, saying that LibDems may "march towards the sound of gunfire" is not the ringing phrase some want to hear.

His final words were "Let's go for it", which seems a bit light to me as a campaign slogan.

Overall, it was a competent, though uninspiring speech. Definitely not a barnstormer. No brilliant sound bites. One appalling joke. Not one for the speech manuals. Five out of ten.

Saturday, September 22, 2012

Cyclist fails proficiency test in Downing Street

Normally when the words "Mitchell" and "foul-mouthed rant" appear in the same paragraph in a tabloid newspaper, it's about a scene from Eastenders. But this time it's not fictional Phil or Grant, it's Andrew, who in real life is the government's chief whip. Of course, it's his job to rant and rave at misbehaving back-benchers, so no doubt he has the Malcolm Tucker swearing lexicon in his jacket pocket. But he appears to have picked the wrong targets for his wrath if police notes of his altercation with two diplomatic protection officers at the gates of Downing Street turn out to be true. His timing could hardly be worse, in the same week that the Prime Minister was in Manchester expressing his sympathy for the murder of two women police officers.

It remains to be seen exactly what Mr Mitchell said, but as things stand, the evidence looks pretty damning. According to the head of the Metropolitan Police Federation, John Tully, the notes taken shortly by two police officers after the incident agree that the words "f***ing plebs" were used during Mr Mitchell's tirade, as well as the word "morons". 

There can be no excuse for treating police officers in the manner that has been reported. Had Mr Mitchell been a member of the public using the same language on a street corner to a police officer, there is a distinct possibility he would be spending a night in the cells. Surely a government official should behave with even greater respect to someone who would literally put his life on the line to protect him.

Mr Mitchell is reported to have apologised to at least one of the officers, though apparently over the phone rather than in person. I suspect he will have to go a lot further if he is to save his position in the government. In fact, I will be very surprised if he is still chief whip on Monday morning.

Friday, September 21, 2012

Start your speech as you mean to go on

There's a saying that runs "how you do anything is how you do everything". There may be some exceptions to that, but as a general rule, I think it's sound. That's why I believe it is so important to begin a speech in exactly the way you intend to deliver all of it. You need to be confident, interesting and entertaining. Alas, some speakers think that they have to break the ice by telling a joke or wittering on about their qualifications and achievements before turning to the topic that people expect to hear. 

In my view, you are not only short-changing the audience if you begin with irrelevant detail, but you are also running the risk of losing their interest before you have told them what the speech is about. There are many ways that you can begin a speech with relevant material while keeping the audience engaged. You can make a promise to help them overcome business issues that we all share. You can pose a tricky question that makes them think, and explain how you will show them the answer. You can use humour as long as it is relevant.
In short, your speech opening should:

  • Set the tone for the rest of the speech
  • Engage the interest of the audience
  • Make a promise
  • Establish a common interest between you and them
  • Move smoothly into the body of the speech
In the fictional West Wing TV show, written by the brilliant Aaron Sorkin, there's a clip that shows exactly how a bad speech opening can be transformed into a good one. If only everyone had speechwriters like this.

Monday, September 17, 2012

Make your phrases ring

A few weeks ago, I wrote a cautionary piece advising you to avoid clich├ęs (like having a picture of a bell on a blog about ringing phrases). However, there's nothing to stop you creating phrases of your own that others will re-use. It's something politicians are very good at. Some years ago, William Hague was in opposition to New Labour, and used the phrase "culture of cronyism" in several interviews. The phrase stuck, and became associated with Tony Blair and his colleagues, being used by his opponents repeatedly until he stepped from power. Prior to Mr Hague's use, the phrase had hardly been recorded. He made it into a phrase that stuck. Another Tory politician, Michael Howard, will forever be associated with the description by Anne Widdecombe as having "something of the night" about him.

One way of creating a ringing phrase is to look at a news story and make a comparison with it. Another technique is to make up an alliterative phrase including an unusual word, such as William Hague's example.

Once you have such a phrase, use it several times in an interview. Ideally, the interviewer will repeat it back to you, or use it in a question to another guest. The more controversial it sounds, the better. Use it in your blogs, and drop it into your social media messages too. You'll know when you've done a good job when you are on the front page of Google when people search for it. It works. A few years ago, I used the phrase "Twitter is the collective brain of the planet". It' hasn't gone global (yet), but at least I am getting the credit.

Friday, September 14, 2012

Why do audiences remember you?

If you think back to your schooldays, and the teachers you loved and hated, I bet that many of your memories are about their mannerisms, voice or appearance. It's the unusual characteristics that tend to define people, and live long in the memory. None of us is perfect, and we all have little quirks that we may display when we are speaking. The thing is, you are not there to be remembered for your strange turn of phrase or odd socks. Your aim is to be remembered for your message.

That's why attention to detail matters. It's also why you need to analyse your speeches on video, as well as taking feedback from trusted colleagues. That doesn't mean you have to appear in a bland, unadorned outfit and eliminate every bit of character from your voice. Far from it. It does mean that you have to be aware of how your audience is reacting to what you wear, how you move and how you speak, and to ensure that whatever quirk you display does not overwhelm your main purpose.

Every stand-up comedian knows that they need to draw attention to anything unusual about themselves as quickly as possible, and turn it into humour. It then ceases to be of any great interest to the audience. Speakers can do exactly the same thing, or even have it mentioned as part of their introduction.

Every time you are about to speak, check yourself out in a long mirror. If there's someone else around, ask them to check you over too. When you analyse your speeches, look out for over-used gestures or repeated phrases. Being aware of them will help you to stop them from being a distraction. Make sure that your message is the thing that is remembered.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

How to prepare an ad-lib speech

Ad-lib, or Ad libitum in full mean's literally "at one's pleasure" and when applied to speeches, can reduce even experienced practitioners to reluctant speakers. Yet a good speech delivered at very short notice will enhance your reputation enormously, so knowing how to deliver one is a great skill to have. Here are a few tips to help you cope with speaking at only five minutes warning. 

1) Find out exactly what is being asked of you. Is it a vote of thanks, a summary of the year, or a welcome to distinguished guests?

2) Write down the objective. (By now you should know to always carry a pen and notebook)

3) Excuse yourself and go somewhere quiet. It can even be a toilet cubicle. You need a few minutes of peace to gather your thoughts.

4) Write down your core message. That's your opening and closing statement. 

5) Decide on one story to tell which is relevant and which you know inside out. Write down a phrase to remind you of it.

6) When you speak, do not apologise. Just do your stuff. 

7) Keep it short. Five minutes is enough. Do not apologise for the length of your speech.

8) Smile and thank people the end. Do not apologise.