In the October newsletter I did analyses of conference speeches by the leaders of UKIP and the LibDems. This month I shall to do the same for Labour and Conservative. Chronology having caused the two biggest guns to have delivered last, I knew that these would be the ones subjected to the greatest pressure.
For various reasons I had seen neither speech live; so I was looking forward to settling down with pen and pad in front of the screen. In the event I found it impossible to sit all the way through either of them.
While he was making this speech Tweets were pouring into my BlackBerry from his political friends and foes; and they were universally scathing. As usual I treated these criticisms with a pinch of salt; because as a rule others don’t look where I am looking. It wasn’t going to be as bad as they claimed. Was it?
Within minutes of my watching the YouTube posting I had dropped both pen and pad, had covered my face with my hands and was viewing the screen between clenched fingers. The ultra-schmaltzy opening, directed at his wife, was emetic not just because it was ultra-schmaltzy but because there was nothing against which to balance it. Schmaltz can work only with a counter-weight of something very tough or the audience is left (as in this case) with just a sickly puddle of emotional soup. The worst of the schmaltz gave way to some humour on the subject of his nose-job. A bit of human-interest Nice-to-Know material (see the Chapter in The Face & Tripod) is quite a good idea, and the punch-line was quite funny so I began to hope that when he cut to the chase things would look up.
I don’t want to get bogged down in the political angle – that is not the brief I set myself – but it is supremely lame and a waste of everyone’s time, merely to catalogue what you see as shortcomings in the administration without recommending how to put them right. Imagine a member of your team delivering a presentation to you and doing that. This, even more than the opening schmaltz, was what put my hands over my face. This also was what eventually caused me to stab the ‘off’ button: I couldn’t take any more.
The last quality we should seek in a political leader is film-star attractiveness. Yes I know that the electorate, led by the media, too easily treats elections as a pantomime audition (and accordingly Britain was run for around a decade by Buttons – followed by Baron Hard-up) but to counter this tendency it makes it all the more important for political speeches to be of the highest standard. This wasn’t. Miliband looks and sounds a little weird, so he needs to deliver strong arguments with transparent passion. He tried, but failed. He also needs basic platform savvy to stop himself repeatedly hitting the microphone with his gestures. If any of you had delivered this speech in the more testing environment of a business setting the audience would have sent you packing. I turned to Cameron, hoping for better.
I remember when Press pre-releases were embargoed. This speech, whether by accident or design, road-tested itself by pre-release. The Today programme buzzed with how the PM was going to tell us all to pay off our credit cards. Comments were passed by usual-suspect Radio 4 punditry; and the 6 o’clock news that evening informed us that that bit had been dropped. Were it so easy for the rest of us! It isn’t, hence Cardinal 2 in The Face & Tripod.
He began with a very strong opening sentence, uncompromising to a fault. My hopes soared. He followed with an anaphora repetition – “ I’m proud of my…” with the last of the series delivered straight down the lens of the camera, “… and I’m proud of you.” My hopes sank. That wasn’t schmaltzy: that was oily. He paused for applause, and the audience – no doubt as stunned as I – failed to oblige. What possessed him to do something so creepy?
I have to keep reminding myself that these people have armies of consultants advising them on every eyebrow twitch. Why else would Cameron have acquired this curious thin-lipped grimace which he now affects, as if to project a ‘don’t mess with me’ image? It looks to me so phoney that I have trouble focussing instead on what he is saying; which sometimes is a pity because sometimes it is good.
But, as with Miliband, I found myself wondering whether this speech would have survived in a business environment. And the resounding answer was, no.
I recently engaged in an argument with a friend who disputed my claim that business speaking was more exacting than its political equivalent. He pointed to the myriad pressures that govern what and how politicians have to speak. He opined that where business speaking is fuelled by conviction, political speaking fakes conviction – and doing that successfully is a considerable skill. It’s a seductive case, because it assumes that all a business speaker needs is truth and sincerity. However we all know that occasions arise, in business as much as in politics, when your view of a broader picture than your audience can see will force you to aim slightly to one side of the truth. And your audience is invariably harder-nosed, more cynical and less easily duped than most of the millions of voters on the other side of the politician’s TV camera. If you find yourself having to fake sincerity, you’d better be a damn sight better at it than those guys above! In my training I try to avoid dispensing phoney cosmetic veneers, not because I am a starry-eyed optimist but because I’m a steely-eyed pessimist concerning the chances of pulling it off with the audiences of the niche in which I work. (It is perfectly possible to be genuinely sincere, aiming to one side of the truth, but that’s a long story.)
If you can bear to watch some of the footage of those two lamentable speeches, look hard when the camera gives you close-up shots of party grandees. How often do you see from them a genuine laugh, a truly thoughtful nod or applause that is more than dutiful? Very seldom. But when you do, that is when the speaker has swayed an audience as unforgiving as your average business audience.