Say It like You Mean It
Glover, Dennis, Review - Institute of Public Affairs
A good speech can make or break a political career. And Kevin Rudd's inability to communicate effectively should be a warning to all aspiring politicians explains Dennis Glover.
Amidst the torrent of explanations devoted to the downfall of Kevin Rudd, one issue cannot be escaped: if he had been a better orator he'd most likely still be prime minister.
Having become Labor leader and then prime minister by pitching himself beyond the Labor caucus to the true believers on the Australian Left, Rudd not only failed to keep his followers inspired, he seemed to go out of his way to deflate them, starting with his plea on the very night of his victory for us all to calm down and have a cup of tea and an Iced Vo-Vo.
I wasn't the only one to find it depressing and dispiriting. There were alternatives. For instance, having achieved the goal he'd set himself-of climbing from Everest base camp to government in under a year-he could have told the watching millions that Labor had just planted the flag of progress on the top of the very highest summit. Imagine the roar it would have received, and the energy it would have generated.
Time after time, Rudd was warned by senior commentators and his own supporters to drop his long-winded, technocratic speaking style. The low point came when an editorial in The Australian gave him ?nought out of ten for delivery' for an address to the National Press Club and told him to peer beyond the lectern to the glazed looks in the audience and to do something about it.
But Rudd ploughed on until there was no one left listening-which was a shame, because he actually had a lot left to say.
And there lies an irony, because Kevin Rudd will be remembered mainly for a great speech: his uplifting apology to the stolen generations. It made him loved as few prime ministers before him. With more consistency of effort and style he may have held on to his followers and still be living in the Lodge.
This makes Kevin Rudd's tragic demise Exhibit One in my defence of oratory. I believe that to rescue our democracy from the slow strangulation of boredom we need better political speech-making. The era of politics dominated by managerialism-in which timid politicians bore us with endless discussion of ?process'-cannot go on.
Here are Exhibits Two, Three and Four: Barack Obama, Sarah Palin and David Cameron.
Just a little over six years ago Obama was a little-known member of the Illinois state legislature. Then a dramatic speech which electrified the 2004 Democratic Convention brought him to the attention of the world. Against his inspiring oratory, the calculated triangulation of the establishment's preferred candidate, Hilary RodhamClinton, seemed enervating and cynical. The rest, as they say, is history-making.
To counter Obama's oratory, and fire-up its own base, the Republican machine chose a little-known governor of a little-regarded state to be the slightly dismal John McCain's running-mate. Her name was Sarah Palin, and history records that she took a great speech written for her by George W Bush's old speechwriter and smashed it out of the park. Her Tea Party movement has changed American politics, which means it may change the world.
Meanwhile in the United Kingdom in 2005, having repeatedly failed to find someone charismatic enough to take on the charming Tony Blair, the Conservative Party was meeting to elect its new leader. An unknown outsider, considered too liberal to lead the party of Margaret Thatcher, stepped onto the stage at the Tory nominating convention and spoke brilliantly, courageously and word-perfectly for 17 minutes, completely without notes or lectern-all to an absolutely astonished audience. His name was David Cameron; he quickly became the leadership favourite and is now presiding over what may be a second conservative economic revolution.
The common thread in these success stories is oratory. Unlike Exhibit One, our Exhibits Two, Three and Four had the courage to appeal to the people using the weapon that has been the decisive factor in politics since the birth of democracy more than 2500 years ago: well-crafted rhetoric.
Their courage, however, was just their starting point. Reading Obama's, Palin's and Cameron's speeches or better still, watching them on YouTube-you will notice something else: they are the masters and mistresses of technique. Their speeches are packed with rhetorical devices in the form of schemes and tropes that the Roman orator Cicero also used and that his Greek predecessors categorized for us: speaking in threes ( tricolon ); beginning sentences with the same word ( anaphora ) or ending them with the same word ( epiphora); joining long lists with conjunctions ( polysyndeton ) or omitting the conjunctions altogether ( asyndeton); asking rhetorical questions ( erotema ) and answering them ( anthypophora); juxtaposing contrasting ideals ( antithesis ); and so on. These turn mere sentences into a form of prose poetry that attracts the ear. The most confident speechmakers like these also liberally use metaphors, tell stories, employ ridicule, and make powerful appeals to our emotions using principles like courage and patriotism.
How many of these techniques, for instance can you detect in the following great passages from Obama's and Palin's 2004 and 2008 convention addresses?
?there's not a liberal America and a conservative America there's the United States of America. There's not a black America and white America and Latino America and Asian America; there's the United States of America. The pundits like to slice-and-dice our country into Red States and Blue States; Red States for Republicans, Blue States for Democrats. But I've got news for them, too. We worship an awesome God in the Blue States, and we don't like federal agents poking around our libraries in the Red States. We coach Little League in the Blue States and have gay friends in the Red States. There are patriots who opposed the war in Iraq and patriots who supported it. We are one people, all of us pledging allegiance to the stars and stripes, all of us defending the United States of America.
?when the cloud of rhetoric has passed, when the roar of the crowd fades away, when the stadium lights go out, and those Styrofoam Greek columns are hauled back to some studio lot; when that happens, what exactly is our opponent's plan? What does he actually seek to accomplish after he's done turning back the waters and healing the planet? answer - The the answer is to make government bigger, and take more of your money, and give you more orders from Washington, and to reduce the strength of America in a dangerous world.
Now, that it's been established why this is important to politicians and their careers-the next question is, why is it important to the rest of us? To answer that, consider Exhibit Five: Al Gore.
Gore's 2000 presidential bid famously flopped because, as the American commentator Joe Klein has described it, he was unable to project himself as a credible human being. People may have identified with his party and his beliefs but his robotic political persona put them off. Depending on your political views, the result for the world was either a blessing or a disaster. Certainly Gore's reputation was in tatters. Then he met a documentary film-maker called Davis Guggenheim.
If you have seen the film An Inconvenient Truth, which is a movie version of Gore's global warming stump speech, you will be aware of a number of curious interludes in the argument where Gore talks about his old Harvard professor Roger Reveille; his son's near death in a car accident, and his sister dying of lung cancer in a family that made its living from growing tobacco. These are in the film for a reason speechwriters will immediately recognize: they help humanize him. He's a disciple, with a wise mentor; a father who wants to bequeath his son a safe future; a loving brother able to see the errors of his family's way and own up to his mistakes. This makes him the sort of person we wish we could be-the fragile hero on a mission-and therefore someone we're more inclined to listen to and believe than the faux alpha-male who got destroyed by Bush. The Greeks called this appeal to character ethos . You will note also Gore's highly effective use of facts in his movie-length speech including the cherry-picker he uses to reach the point on the graph at which the world begins its ecological death spiral. Again, depending on your view, it is either hyperbole, or sheer genius. Guggenheim knew that this positive projection of Gore's character and the judicious use of interesting facts were the secret rhetorical ingredients needed to make an OK speech into a global phenomenon.
All this is important whether you're a believer in global warming or not, because what can't be denied by either believers or sceptics is the movie's political success. It's hardly an exaggeration to say that the first great liberal cause of the twenty-first century took off because a failed politician learned how to make people listen to what he had to say. Perhaps the greatest compliment of all to the effectiveness of the speech comes from those who denounced it as ?pure rhetoric'.
If we go back 20, 30 and 40 years to the great liberal-conservative cause of the previous century-the defeat of communism and the triumph of liberal capitalism-we find that rhetoric played a great role in that struggle too. In that extended fight, John F Kennedy, Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher-speechmakers who could project belief and courage and get others to follow them-become Exhibits Six, Seven and Eight in the case for oratory. The first implored us to ?ask not' in the struggle for freedom; the second implored Mr Gorbachev to tear down a wall; the third told us that even in the darkest moment, she wasn't for turning. All three in fact employed classical technique to do so (to give them their names, they are, in order): antemetabole, apostrophe and paronomasia.
In other words, a good speech can both make careers and change the world, for good or ill. Its DNA consists of rules, but this DNA can only come to life when it is charged with belief and passion.
Why is it important for you to know this? Because if you care about politics, you can do something about it. You are Exhibit Nine and your audience is Exhibit Ten, in my case. In fact, as an engaged citizen it's your duty to do something about it. Whether you are an elected politician, a candidate for office, an executive member of your local branch, or a member of that much-misunderstood class of political advisers, think-tankers or assorted political professionals, you need to get better at speaking or speechwriting. And if you're an audience member, who simply can't take it any more, you need to demand that our political class gets better at speaking to you.
With that argument and evidence, I rest my case. The rest is up to you.
"But Rudd ploughed on until there was no one left listening - which was a shame, because he actually had a lot left to say."
Ronald Reagan addressing a crowd in front of the Brandenburg Gate | © Newspix
Dennis Glover is a freelance speechwriter and has worked for several federal Labor leaders. His book The Art of Great Speeches and Why We Remember Them is published by Cambridge University Press, RRP $39.95.…
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Publication information: Article title: Say It like You Mean It. Contributors: Glover, Dennis - Author. Magazine title: Review - Institute of Public Affairs. Volume: 63. Issue: 1 Publication date: January 2011. Page number: 30+. © Institute of Public Affairs Nov 2008. Provided by ProQuest LLC. All Rights Reserved.
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