Why Can't Politicians Make Engaging Speeches? ; EDITORIAL & OPINION

Article excerpt

I recently bought a coin sorter. You throw in a handful of coins at the top and they pass through the whirring machinery eventually to flop into the hollow column that fits them. It's a very useful machine.

It came into my mind on the 10th day of the party conferences listening to a speaker talking about one of the top priorities of the political class. Climate change, was it? Darfur? Bus regulation? I can't remember. My notes go: "Leading the world. People to make a difference. Strong communities. Returning power to the people. Partnerships for growth." Or as my coin sorter would say: "Flop. Flop, flop, flop, flop. Flop." It gave me a sudden insight into modern political discourse, and why so many of us fail to vote. You probably guessed it long ago. But it struck me most forcefully that for people who don't belong to the political class, the speeches at political events are quite extraordinarily boring.

That is interesting in itself because these people spend almost half the national income. How can it be boring when they describe what they're doing with [pound]500bn? What with the wars they're running, the genocides they're watching and the competing annihilations on offer? Even after sketch writers have shouldered the blame for spreading cynicism and apathy, it's still odd that people find it hard to engage themselves in such big speeches on such big-time issues.

David Miliband is to blame, I feel. David and his cohort of young idealists who came into politics to make the world a better place. Talented, diligent, sober, tough, not unattractive. Yet they are directly responsible for the growing alienation of ever larger numbers of voters because it's just unbearable to listen to them speak in public.

I have failed enough on podiums around the world to know a bitter truth about public speaking. There is the world of difference between reading a clever essay to your tutor and engaging an audience, to deploy hope and fear, as politicians have to do. Unless you've engaged the audience you can't do anything with them. Party audiences are so well-trained that they can applaud in their sleep, but speakers should not conceal from themselves that they are driving ordinary people away from the political process with their fast-talking, high-pressure, know-it-all, never-lost for-words administratively brilliant discourse.

It's not about intellect, for one thing. Cleverness is not enough. Nor is it enough to collect those focus group buzzwords and throw them into the coin-sorter. Those terrible phrases, whole sentences sometimes, that they repeat with urgency and desperation, ("passion" they called it, three years ago).

"I've always been absolutely clear. That is precisely why. The status quo is not an option. We must never be complacent. …