What then makes a good political speech? An analysis

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Sunday, 29 January 2012 21:08 by Ad astra
Over the change-of-year break, we have had the opportunity to appraise several political speeches. Some of you have ventured an opinion about the characteristics of a ‘good’ speech. Some have given straightforward advice about how to create such speeches; for others, creating good speeches has seemed more complex and not amenable to a simple solution.

The purpose of this piece is to draw together those comments and fashion a framework for creating and evaluating political speeches for your consideration.

Let’s begin by detailing the purposes of such speeches:

A generic statement of purpose might read:

To gain and stimulate interest to:
- enable transfer of information, ideas, motivation and inspiration,
- hold concentration through the speech.

To transmit information about:
- what already is,
- what is planned,
- what might be possible,
- what is predicted.

To explain:
- why actions have been taken,
- the expected consequences,
- the benefit of the actions,
- the possible or anticipated drawbacks of the actions.

To garner approval for:
- what has been achieved,
- what is planned,
- what might eventuate.

To seek ideas about:
- the current situation,
- what might be done about it,
- creative alternatives,
- design ideas.

To motivate and inspire the audience to:
- accept the value of what has been done,
- accept the need for further action,
- change attitudes and values,
- create a vision of a better future,
- establish a different paradigm, another way of viewing issues.

To catch the imagination of the audience so as to:
- paint an exciting picture,
- describe a new perspective,
- generate a desire for action.

To induce harmony and understanding among the audience so as to:
- engender cooperation,
- achieve consensus,
- enable compromise where consensus is not possible.

Not all speeches will embody all of these elements, but all will embrace some.

In brief, the speechwriter and the speaker will need to ask themselves:
- what are the desired ‘take-home’ messages?
- how will they be transmitted?
- what inspirational devices will be used to maximize attention and assimilation?
- how will we know that the messages have been heard and assimilated?

There are a number of devices that facilitate the creation of good speeches:

Message and emotion
To begin with, there is a proven connection between what is to be transmitted and the emotional garment in which it is clothed. We learn and assimilate better when we are emotionally engaged, especially when swept along by the inspirational words, manner of speech, and gestures.

One reason that the speeches by Kevin Rudd, Paul Keating, Martin Luther King, Abraham Lincoln, and Jesus are so highly regarded is that they touched the souls of the people, identifying injustice and discrimination. Ben Chifley’s speech reminded the people of traumas not long past and assured them support.

Speakers know that if they can engage the consciousness of the audience and establish good rapport, if they can build on the emotion that resides in their bosoms, the message, especially when it is one of hope and promise, will impinge more strongly. Unless the audience can be emotionally involved, messages will seem inert and devoid of feeling, and will usually go unheard or unheeded.

Sometimes the emotion is so adverse that transmission of information is nigh impossible, as we have seen several times in regional meetings about the Murray-Darling Water Plan. Unless anger and opposition in the audience are recognized, acknowledged, addressed, and neutralized, at least in part, little of the message will be heard, and even less remembered.

Words and their emotional clothing go together.

Engaging the audience
A speaking device that is a proven success is engaging the audience on a personal level. While even the best of speakers cannot engage everyone in a large audience, they can and do engage selected members. They eyeball one or two near the front and a little way back. It is possible to also target some right at the back and the sides. Good speakers talk to them as if they were the only ones present, moving from front to back, and from side to side, looking intently at their eyes, with an unspoken but unmistakable “You know this to be so”, or “I’m sure you understand this” or “I know you will give me your support”. At a distance, others nearby the targeted ones will also feel as if they are being addressed personally too. In this way, it is possible to personally engage large sectors, even of a big audience. This engagement is vital. Without it, the audience feels ‘out of it’, becomes restive and finally disinterested and unresponsive, and remembers nothing much positive, only feelings of boredom and disengagement. Some have suggested Julia Gillard lacked such a connection to her audience in her address to the ALP National Conference.

Of course, if some members of the audience come carrying adverse baggage about the speaker, it makes it even more difficult for the speaker to engage. From the description of PM Gillard’s audience, it seems as if there were some carrying such baggage, somewhat surprising among an audience of the so-called party faithful.

Avoid reading a speech
Eyeballing selected members of the audience requires the speaker to take his or her eyes from a prepared script. Anyway, it is desirable, if not essential, to not read a speech parrot-fashion. There is a technique of using written notes as a reminder, yet look at the audience while speaking. A quick glance at the notes then raising the eyes to the audience to speak is a well-tried method. The trick is to not read the script, and to speak only when looking at the audience. This is possible if time is taken to rehearse the speech so that most of it is committed to memory, and the script is used only as an aide memoir.

Tell them what you’re going to say
Another device used by successful speakers is the well tried – tell the audience what you intend to tell them, then tell them, then tell them what you have just told them. They then know what’s coming, they recognize it when it comes, and they are left with the distilled ‘take home messages’. Handouts at the end of the take home messages are valuable, and visual aids to accompany the spoken word are useful, so long as they match. These devices are perhaps less suitable for political audiences than for other learning situations.

Repetition and reiteration
Repetition is a sound technique. Martin Luther King powered his address by repeating the now-famous words: “I have a dream.” Kevin Rudd repeated: “We are sorry” many times.

Many a good speech, at least in parts, includes short sentences, often using similar words or themes, delivered rhythmically, which create an attractive cadence that can be almost mesmerizing. Martin Luther King used this device, and so did Paul Keating and Kevin Rudd.

Reiteration too is effective. Reiterating the key elements of the message drives it into memory. Several of the speeches use this device.

Summing up or ending with a rhetorical flourish reinforces the message and the emotion that clothes it.

You may care to refresh your memory of the endings of these speeches by Julia Gillard, Ben Chifley, Kevin Rudd, Paul Keating, Martin Luther King, Abraham Lincoln, and Jesus, and remind yourself of the take home messages and the rhetorical flourish with which most conclude. The initial final words are in the links.

We are the people who share and stick together.

I try to think of the Labour movement, not as putting an extra sixpence into somebody's pocket...

We today take this first step by acknowledging the past and laying claim to a future that embraces all Australians.

There is one thing today we cannot imagine.

And when this happens, when we allow freedom ring, when we let it ring from every village and every hamlet…

The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here.

Blessed are the poor in spirit: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven…

Manner of speech
This can have a significant effect on audience attention and affect the potency and attractiveness of the message. Julia Gillard’s ocker drawl is often criticized, and the less than enthusiastic reception she sometimes receives is attributed to this trait. Sometimes she is said to appear condescending or school-marmish.

There is no doubt that those with a strong resonant voice like Martin Luther King have an oratory advantage. Kevin Rudd spoke in suitable deep tones in his ‘Sorry’ address.

Speakers are stuck with their usual voices, but voice training can improve lesser voices.

The use of hand and arm gestures can enhance, or sometimes detract from the speech. They too can be improved with training.

How long ought a speech to be?
Many commented on the length of the speeches and drew the conclusion that shorter speeches are to be preferred. That is likely to be so when a politician is engaging a remote and largely disinterested audience, such as in a televised address. The attention span of most audiences is said to be about twenty minutes, after which concentration lags. For many audiences it is much less, conditioned as they are to ten second grabs on TV, and rapidly changing subject matter. Even serious subjects, such as those on news bulletins, generally last no more than a few minutes. When a politician is addressing a wide audience the speech needs to be brief. But if the audience is in an auditorium, the duration depends on the subject matter and the nature of the audience. An interested audience, anxious to hear the speaker’s message, will look for a longer presentation, and provided the speaker follows the twenty minute rule and gives the audience a break or takes them in a new direction, good speakers can hold the attention of audiences for an hour, and often do, for example in academic environments.

Speakers at meetings of the party faithful ought to be able to hold their attention for substantial periods. Politicians addressing businessmen or farmer groups, or mining executives, or economists, for example, ought to be able to hold their audiences for as long as it takes to transmit the message in its emotional cloak. Indeed, such audiences would rightly feel short-changed if offered only short ‘grabs’, when what they are seeking is detailed information, plans, predictions, encouragement, and inspiration. Shorter speeches are not necessarily better – the duration is very much a matter of ‘horses for courses’.

In conclusion
Above all, the good speech delivers clearly messages that the speaker wishes to be readily remembered, does so to an attentive and motivated audience that gathers inspiration and hope from what is said and how it is said, an audience that is emotionally engaged throughout.

Writing and delivering speeches is an exacting and complex process. To some it comes easily; others struggle to ascend to great heights. There is no simple formula. Each speech needs to be fashioned to suit the audience, and the message that the speaker wishes to transmit and have remembered. The relationship between the speaker and the audience is critical. A congenial relationship is essential for success – the opposite brings disappointment to all participants.

Although the above suggestions cover a lot of ground, there may be other elements of speechwriting and speechmaking that you would wish to advance. Please add them and tell us what you think.