Peter Mandelson at 2009 British Labour Party Conference.

From October ’10 Auracle newsletter

One of my readers suggested I had a look at the speech Peter Mandelson made at the 2009 Labour Party Conference.

The assertion was that Mandelson’s self-deprecation very effectively turns the hall to his side – though I’m not sure how much they were against him before. At one point, the camera looks at the crowd and picks out an enigmatic smile from Ed Miliband (whatever happened to him?), but being enigmatic I really can’t read his feelings at that moment. Anyway, let’s go through the speech.

First things first: he’s tackling a hell of a hump. The nerves aren’t overly obvious because he disguises them well, but they are there all right. Look at the way he screws up his words at the 00:35 point – “I was as shocked as some as you”. A couple of seconds of later he momentarily stammers the beginning of the word, “network”. However by 1:20 he seems to have shed most of the burden and is on a roll. By the time he reaches “I didn’t choose this party: I was born into it” it’s tempting to think he’s in the driving seat.

The second half of his joke about Blair having said that the project would only be complete when the Labour Party learned to love Peter Mandelson is brilliant: he’s obviously worked hard on it. There are so many ways he could have completed that gag, but saying that “he set the bar a little too high” is stunningly good. And yet …

The most famous quote from the speech – “If I can come back, we can come back!” actually part-fails. Properly timed, it should not have needed the second half. If he had really had them in the proverbial palm of his hand they would have anticipated the second half and applauded hard enough for him to have discarded it – or made it into a drowned rant.

Speaking analysts have called this many things, but I call it the ‘drowned rant’. For many years beloved of tub-thumping politicians and rabble-rousing union leaders, the ‘drowned rant’ is when the speaker builds to a thunderous declaration, and intends to have the end of it drowned out by a tsunami of applause. Arthur Scargill used it all the time. Today, it’s rather gone out of fashion. Mandelson appears to be trying to generate lots of them – and failing. You hear his voice hardening to trigger the applause, but the applause doesn’t come soon enough to drown him – or even enough for him to ride it like a surfer rides a wave (the surfed applause is the junior partner of the drowned rant). It appears to start so late and so quiet as to exist almost out of sympathy. I was cringing on his behalf, till I began to wonder whether it was simply a case of the sound engineer keeping the ‘atmos’ microphones at a low enough level not to drown him on the recording. And I’m still not certain. But if that is the case, that sound engineer has done him no favours. It makes rant after rant seem rather lame. There are examples at 2:55, 3:45 & 5:00. And then at 7:40 he actually pauses momentarily for applause – and doesn’t get it. And then at 7:50, “…fabric of people’s lives” he’s begging for applause, but it arrives agonizingly late.

Matters begin to improve at 9:10 when he comes up from very quiet to get a really healthy round of applause at the announcement of Car Scrappage being extended; but he misjudges the extent of the improvement by trying for another almost immediately – and failing.

The trout he’s playing on the end of this line is a slippery bastard with a mind of its own; but he’s not a quitter. He goes on playing it manfully; sometimes seeming to win, other times all over the place. At 14:00 he carefully stage-manages another build to a rant, and then actually muffs the words of the punch line. That takes all the guts out of the applause. And then …

At 15:55 he utters the magic words, “and finally”. They have an electric effect on audiences (see The Inner Frame in The Face & Tripod). In this case it seems to weave its magic on him. From that moment – with ten minutes still to go – he’s a different speaker. Now he really gets in the driving seat, and now he’s so much in control that he barely glances at his notes. Now I’d be proud to claim him as my trainee – though he isn’t.

So what mistake(s) was he making before? There’s a technical detail and a General Principle. First the technical detail –

  • ‘Drowned rants’ are rather similar to humour inasmuch as the audience must never feel pressured to respond as required. Begging applause, like begging laughter, is an audience turn-off. He was trying to pull strings too soon. But the General Principle is much more important…
  • Cardinal Rule # 1! The first chapter in the book. Have Something To Say! Before the 16-minute mark he was trying to play clever-buggers with all sorts of rhetorical trickery. After it, he refocused on what his message was. And he became infinitely more effective. It’s the caveat I attach to my Masterclass: don’t allow anything you come to learn later allow your attention to be diverted from the prime requirement – get your message out there.

Last week I was at a conference devoted to sales presentations, and saw all manner of extremely expensive bells-and-whistles that can embellish performances. None of that came near to persuading me that they were as valuable as the steely-eyed drive that accompanies a speaker with something to say. And Mandelson here confirms that belief.
There’s far, far more that I could say on this speech; but that’ll do for now!

Brian Robinson

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