The call for Kevin Rudd to use his speechwriter seems to be gathering momentum. There have been calls for this from Bob Hawke, Paul Keating’s speech-writer, Don Watson, Bob Ellis and sundry columnists, most recently Samantha Maiden, online political editor for The Australian in a piece on 19 November, He does exist - Rudd's speechwriter. She reveals that Tim Dixon, a lawyer and economist, is Kevin Rudd's speechwriter, that he "writes perfectly good speeches for Rudd before the PM gets to them". She then gives Rudd both barrels: "But do not blame him for the Prime Minister's mangled message in his jargon-filled orations and attempts at homespun schtick.” She continues "According to Labor insiders, Mr Dixon writes a perfectly lovely speech, as do other colleagues in the PM's office. Until Mr Rudd gets his clunky control mitts on it." I’m sure we’d all love to read Dixon’s ‘perfectly lovely speeches’. If Maiden had done so, she would have had some basis for her assertion that Rudd ‘mangles’ them.
The call for Rudd to use a speechwriter results from the view that Rudd’s oratory is not up to scratch. In reaching that judgement, it’s uncommon for the critics to state their criteria for acceptable public speaking, or a role model that Rudd might emulate. Speechwriter to Labor politicians, Bob Ellis, attempted to do so this morning on ABC 774 radio when, referring to speeches for which a speechwriter would be appropriate, said that they needed ‘muscular’ emotion, and rhythm that reinforced the message. That was as far as he got.
The Canberra press gallery are among the most critical of Rudd’s oratory. They miss what they considered to be the outstanding debating talent of Peter Costello, and acknowledge Paul Keating had a clever turn of phrase. I can’t recall them extolling John Howard’s performances, in or out of parliament, nor can I recall any of his other ministers being granted their seal of approval. They rate Malcolm Turnbull as a good parliamentary performer, so perhaps he is the one Rudd should copy.
Bob Hawke feels that Rudd "... may have spent a little too much time on writing his own speeches...You can see that he wants to be sure that he's across everything. You can call that a control freak, but it's not a bad thing of itself." No, not a bad thing to know what you’re talking about. Howard also gave the impression that he did; I can’t recall him being criticized for that.
What Maiden accuses Rudd of is that “He loves to back up the truck and dump facts, figures, details and acronyms into his speeches as his own special personal touch.” Are you getting the drift? Presumably she thinks facts, figures and details are not de rigueur. Presumably soaring oratory, devoid of these ‘distractions’, will do. Acronyms of course are ‘uncool’. But how many times do we want to hear the same longhand phrase in the one speech, when an acronym would be a reasonable substitute? Acronyms that are not generally understood confuse, but surely we can cope with the common ones. For example, do we want ASIC and APRA spelt out each time these bodies are mentioned? [more]
Maiden goes on to say “His speechwriters, for example, are probably not responsible for Mr Rudd uttering these stirring words yesterday in relation to his $300 million local council spend-a-thon: ‘By immediate, I mean immediate. Immediate means now. It's ready to go now.’” Now we’re getting a handle on what’s not OK. Note first the use of the phrases ‘stirring words’ and ‘spend-a-thon’. You know that this sarcasm foreshadows disapproval of the words Rudd actually used. I heard him say them. I thought he made the central point well, namely that councils needed to act right away, to not drag their feet. He could hardly have made it clearer. There were no facts, figures or details, no acronyms, just a simple clear message – get on with it. What did Maiden expect? How would she have fashioned that message. Let’s see her oratory.
A blogger commenting on Maiden’s piece says “Last week Mr Rudd commenting on the G20 issue: ‘Can I just say that the White House says and I have said and the US ambassador has said that the reported remarks in this article were not made, Mr Rudd said.’ A lot of 'saiding' about not saying!” Of course the blogger was trying to be funny, but how else would Rudd answer the oft-repeated question about the ‘leak’? The blogger seems to feel that repetition is ‘uncool’. Some would see it as a pretty effective device for making a point, in this instance one that so many of the media don’t want to hear or accept.
In the last piece on The Political Sword, The Rudd Report Card one year in, it is reported that Simon Mann in Saturday’s Age gave Rudd a spray, saying we have “grown accustomed to cliché and ‘bureaucratese’”, that Rudd is “a man who would use 2000 words when 200 would do”, and that his language is “leaden”. David Crowe in the November 15-16 issue of the AFR finds Rudd guilty of “dipplo-babble”, and insists “he talks too much”.
So Rudd’s having a hard time pleasing many in the media with his public speaking. Is this another example of media groupthink that I wrote about back in June on Possum Box - Is the media in Australia suffering from groupthink? Since Rudd-speak seems to be the topic of the week as we approach the one year anniversary of Labor’s election, are some in the media now scrambling to get on the bandwagon? The media seem fixated on Rudd’s style – too much jargon and acronyms, too many facts, figures and detail, too much verbosity and repetition, too many clichés, too much ‘shtick’, too bland in presentation. They would have us believe they long for oratory that will inspire and uplift.
But in all their learned analysis of Rudd-speak, the media never talk about context. Surely it’s the context that governs what is said and how it’s said. Soaring oratory is appropriate on occasions of national significance. Rudd’s speech at ‘The Apology’, which he wrote himself, fitted that description and was widely embraced by the community. So he is capable of this when the occasion demands. High flying rhetoric is appropriate at the launch of political campaigns, on winning an election, or the opening of parliament. Did Rudd meet expectations then? Many would say so, but not the media. On occasions of national sadness, such as the death of a leader or remembrance of historic events such a yesterday’s services to honour the sailors lost on HMAS Sydney or on Anzac or Remembrance Days, comforting words of thankfulness and gratitude are called for. Did Rudd satisfy his critics then?
When national or local disasters occur, soothing words of comfort and reassurance are needed. How did Rudd perform in Brisbane on his return from Washington when he spoke to those affected by the awful storm?
In the current economic crisis, has not Rudd made clear what the situation is over and over again and combined messages of concern about the economy with words of reassurance? These are the ‘mixed messages’ the media scorns. The media seems oblivious to the need for our leaders to transmit mixed messages – the good news as well as the gloomy. Would all gloom be acceptable; would unmitigated optimism be appropriate? Yet the media still persist in condemning Rudd’s ‘mixed messages’. Sadly, they just don’t seem to get it.
When addressing large groups such as the 2020 Summit there’s a need to spell out broad goals and inspire the discussants; with the recent meeting of local government officials, specific targets were needed. Did Rudd achieve those goals?
In parliament, a PM needs to be able to give information of national or international importance. How does Rudd rate? Every time I have seen him do that he looks confident, sounds convincing, and is clearly understandable. When confronted with Opposition questions, a PM has to be able to answer questions lucidly, authoritatively, cuttingly when necessary, and to the Opposition’s satisfaction. Rudd seems to do this well, except of course the latter, which is not surprising.
At doorstops and press conferences he usually has a short message which he delivers clearly. He is less comfortable answering questions from the media throng; some he finds exasperating, such as the ‘will you guarantee’ question, one to which no sensible politician will give an affirmative answer. His answers are thoughtful; his facial expressions often giving an inkling that behind the facade there are intense thought processes going on to ensure the answer is accurate and will not cause him regret. This is an area where he would wish to be more fluent, more compelling.
In TV interviews with hosts who ask penetrating questions and persist until they get an answer, such as the ABC TV’s Kerry O’Brien on the 7.30 Report, Rudd listens very carefully, often with a look of intense concentration that is interpreted by some as blandness, and can look uncomfortable as the host presses the question relentlessly. This is not unique to Rudd; Howard sometimes looked equally uncomfortable. Is it possible to learn how to cope comfortably with the Kerry O’Briens of this world? Few politicians can.
On location Rudd speaks casually. He speaks like the guy next door. His message is simple and clear. There is general acknowledgement that in personal conversation Rudd is engaging and communicates well. In conversational mode, he often has an old-fashioned way of talking. Some find that sort of talk endearing, but others find it irritating; some feel ‘talked-down-to’.
When there’s a need to identify with the man-in-the-street, the family around the kitchen table, language they understand is needed. So we hear the oft-repeated ‘working families’ that morphed into ‘families, pensioners and carers’, ‘people are doing it tough’, ‘‘things are going to get tough, hard and ugly’, with the ‘global financial crisis’ but the Government has taken ‘decisive action’, and ‘if you had to choose a country to be in during this time it would be Australia’. Journalists found their repetition annoying and boring, they even counted them. Clearly they’re not educators. Otherwise they would have known the potency of repetition in getting across a message to an audience that is not glued all day to the radio or TV.
His performances on Channel Seven’s Sunrise, his solo appearance on the ABC’s Q&A programme, and his two appearances on Channel Ten’s Rove Live, in all of which he was talking to the viewing public, have been widely acclaimed. His appearance on Channel Seven’s Minding your money, an audience with the PM was described by Corporate Engagement as “extraordinary...relaxed, comfortable and forthcoming...focused on answering questions rather than reciting messages. The audience loved it.”
So in the many contexts that the PM finds himself, he seems to adapt his manner of speaking to match, and generally gets his message across. But not to the satisfaction of some in the media who have made it their mission to criticize him at every opportunity, to put him down, to prove their point that he needs to use his speechwriter to avoid his awful oratory habits, which so irritate them and his political opponents.
To say that Rudd lacks oratory skills is like telling a patient that they have a disease, without refining that generalization to a specific diagnosis. Not much use to the patient. Those who want to critique Rudd-speak owe it to him to specify how he rates in the wide variety of contexts in which he speaks. Every context is different and requires different approaches, different skills. Educators know that specificity in identifying problems is the first essential step in their remediation. Because their comments lack contextual specificity, it serves no remedial purpose for Maiden, Mann or Crowe to write their derogatory sarcastic pieces. Nor does such arrogance do anything for their journalistic reputation. All their pieces do is to reinforce the antagonism of the Rudd-haters. So let’s have a touch of specificity from the media pundits, let’s see them make context-specific analyses, and let’s see what remedies they recommend. Don’t hold your breath.
What a pity it is that their focus is on Rudd’s language, his delivery and his non-verbals rather than on his message, and on the world-changing issues confronting this nation, with which he has to deal. Still I suppose they have to have some sort of blood sport to distract themselves from the calamities facing us all. Watch out for more of the same.