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Conference Speeches 2011: Who Won?
Content – The good, the bad and the ugly
Clegg Good – A speech that flows well, perfectly connected from topic to topic, and driven 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 always forget to tell someone. So we continue to lose. It sounded a little too much like a schoolboy explaining his end of the duff report to his parents. Ugly – the lurking fear that style defeats substance
Milliband Good – A simple narrative written in compelling sounding rumours, many of which read better on paper than they actually sounded. Clearly for being pro-business, and drew a clear line between Tory and Labor economic policy. Bad – 60 words did not seem enough to cover the entire foreign policy of the party (and more than 50 of those were aimed at our troops). Ugly – At Great Speech Writing we write many Groom speeches, and there was a horrible moment when we worried that Ed had taken the wrong script. Of course, the time had passed to tell Mrs M in public that he adored her. Even more troubling was when he seemed to admit to a serious crush on Harriet Harman.
Cameron Good – Seamless links from subject to subject and a running theme of leadership that worked from a discourse perspective. He cleverly briefed the media 24 hours earlier than usual to ensure that Boris’s speech was overshadowed. Bad – Never a great idea to bring back the content you leaked the morning of the speech. Ugly: “I will lead you to release your leadership.” Not Disraeli. Or even Ian Duncan Smith.
The key to any great speech is deciding who it’s aimed at and pitching it right to them.
Cameron spoke to the outside world via the hall – and appeared Prime Minister in the process. Clegg addressed the room, spoke directly to his audience and thanked them for listening. It worked. Milliband was very confused. Sometimes it was spoken at the conference. To others to the country when his style was more than party political broadcasting. And at one stage she was completely confused looking at the audience and saying: “I believe in my conversations with you, the British, I am determined to restore your confidence in us in the economy.” Agghhh!
Those mixed-metaphors in a nutshell (without 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 ecological park full of predators.”
And Milliband – “I’m not interested in consolation prizes so we have to take back the old set of rules, which were built on the sand under a safety net full of holes, to create a new deal 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 without a bracelet.”
Cameron was not. Milliband tried to be. Sometimes Clegg really was. He managed to sound honest, regretful and optimistic all at once. And what other party leader has ever talked for so long about being disgusted? He may even 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, and even used the phrase “Nick Clegg and I” which harkened back to the golden days of the Leadership Debate and Gordon’s lament “I agree with Nick” . In fact, Cameron fell so solidly in line with Nick that he not only cut and pasted his attack on Labour’s economic policy, but also used some very similar adjectives to describe British values. And to top it off, he also 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.
Clegg – From the good: “We are in nobody’s pocket” and “From the easy promises of the opposition to the envious choices of the government” to the meaningless: “Our house, our children, our future” to a Partridge-esque: “Masters of the universe became masters of destruction” (these last encounters with a notable lack of applause). Milliband – The speech was a rolling 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 predators” . The latter was one of many examples of EM trying to create a distinct sense of “good and bad” in the political landscape. And that worked. Cameron – Light, airy and safe phrases including: “We can turn this ship around”, “We have to get Britain back to work” and “our new economy”. “Leadership” was obviously his key theme and word. I half expected him to raise a gauntlet Gary Glitter style, singing that he was the leader of the band. Cameron was also keen to appear as international as possible, jumping from continent to continent in a way that is only really possible during the draw for the World Cup Final.
Balance between humor and sincerity
It is vital to create the right balance, but only if the humor works. And most of it was lame. Clegg was the best, realizing it was a party conference and not an audition for the Comedy Store. His complex lines of prosecution were good (inspired by Woody Allen?) but he slightly undermined them with 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 frat jokes to “Ed nose day”. But things got even worse with the inevitable Blair-esque popular culture reference: “The computer says no.” Only a few years too late there Ed. He made a good joke about Clegg not keeping his promises, but overall there were too many weak jokes.
Cameron was a disappointment here. Rather than stick around for a couple of sharp one-liners, he tried the split approach that left him less than twenty seconds between joking about Boris and “The joy of…Cycling” (ho ho) at Colonel Gadaffi. providing the IRA with semtex (which was not a joke at all, but threatened to be). The low point was the crack on diabetics in the EU. No, it’s still not funny.
Clegg left Gladstone after 5 minutes and Ashdown where possible. But he didn’t talk about Ming Campbell. Funny that. Milliband spoke of Kinnock before he had breathed, and Blair and Brown soon after. To a mixed reaction. Cameron waited 37 minutes before rolling out a list including Lady T. And who enjoyed the conference so much, he mentioned it again thirty seconds later.
As Great Speech Writing clients well know, great content is useless without great delivery. A great delivery means a well-paced speech, showing appropriate levels of energy and emotion, and continuous eye contact with the audience.
Clegg – was the only leader who seemed passionate and seemed to say. 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 drink 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 look relaxed while breaking the monotony of a forty-five minute speech. Interestingly, he spent a lot of time looking at those in front of him and to his left – but rarely looked to his right. Read into it what you will. Maybe he had raised his neck?
Milliband – is, unfortunately, not a born communicator. He was well trained and spoke slowly and methodically, but still seems unable to emphasize the right words. This can ruin potentially bold and passionate remarks. Take, for example, his confused execution of the punch-line “Don’t mess with Rupert Murdoch”, after we feared he was about to burst into tears. 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 begging his teacher for more homework. Unlike Clegg, his sips of water leave a lot of room for improvement, looking like he’s auditioning for a future role as Mr Bean.
Cameron – remains the master of the delivery. He decided to present himself as a leader and brought it. Great eye contact despite layers of makeup, great hand movement and effortless gravitas. His comic breaks were all on point despite some terrible material, and he seemed to be in complete command of his material and his audience.
Ten years have passed since Tony Blair’s ‘kaleidoscope’ speech after 9/11 – the biggest conference speech of the last twenty years. During that time, a new generation of party leaders emerged. And they share many similarities – from their age and worrying lack of stubble, to their centralist messages and carefully managed performances. In practice, there was not much to choose between them, but Nick Clegg exceeded expectations and it is still difficult for Cameron to live up to his. Milliband’s public speaking record means he can easily beat his benchmark, but his delivery is still far behind the other two. None of these speeches were exceptional. None will be remembered in ten years. But leaving politics aside, we have Clegg’s content and delivery ahead of Cameron by a short head.
But if the leaders did not shine particularly brightly, then what did? Balls versus Osbourne remains the most fascinating duel in British politics. Both value substance over style, and both are true heavyweights. Balls never charmed a crowd like any of the party leaders, but his speech was well written, clear and powerful. Boris entertained in his own unique style, and he remains only in his desire to be original and break the rules. Of the younger generation, Labour’s Rory Weal stole the show, winning a gold star for his passion and bravery, and a detention for the funny content. Perhaps he is destined to be the next William Hague – a veteran of the party conference who is arguably the most devastating and effective public speaker at Westminster. The way he brought the cemetery to life at the beginning of the conference was a lesson for all of us. He may well bring it back to the future by becoming the next leader of the party. Other prospective candidates for center stage include the efficient Yvette Cooper and two outside hopefuls in Jeremy Hunt and Jim Murphy – the two tall men who go on stage without notes. Where can they get this 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 kicked out of the front page by Steve Jobs. There is no cure for bad timing. While Theresa May reminded us of the importance of getting your facts right.
To conclude, it is not only politics that converges in the center. Speechwriters and coaches are also. We all long for the conference speeches of the times, made by politicians with the conviction, imagination and passion to move away from the consulting model and dare to be original.
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