Political

How politicians should be making speeches this autumn

Advances in technology mean that politicians need to take into consideration more factors than ever in order to make a successful political speech. Here is how politicians can use those advances to their advantage.

Technological change has frequently altered the speaking styles of political orators. The exaggerated hand movements and booming voice projections of the pre-electrical era were essential for being seen and heard. As film footage spread, that approach increasingly came over as histrionic. The total distanced travelled by the hands and arms of politicians during their speeches therefore declined, thanks to the adoption of a more homely, direct style. Radio and TV both brought about their own changes, followed by the impact of the teleprompter in the 1980s.

Then American President Ronald Reagan secured breathless media coverage for his magic invisible screens brought across the Atlantic for a major tour of Europe in the 1980s. From that came the now traditional three point look, as politicians switch their heads (hopefully not too robotically or predictably) between three teleprompter screens set out in front of them. Left, middle, right, left, right, middle, right, left; the eyes switch back and forth as if following a stuttering tennis match.

The hairstyles of male politicians in Britain have changed too, as an unexpected side-effect of the introduction of televised coverage of the British Parliament. The use of cameras pointing down from above meant men with thinning hair, who had brushed it forward to look fully covered and youthful when talking to someone face on, now found themselves looking marginally silly as the cameras from above portrayed them as people with toupees that had slipped forward, out of place. Then leading Labour moderniser, Bryan Gould, personified the change – quickly shifting to sweeping hair back to ensure coverage all the way across the head.

Most recently, the improvement in microphone technology has made it possible for politicians to search for a relaxed and confident look by straying away from their lecterns and wandering the stage. We now have the modern political speech clichés to choose between: formal and serious at lectern or relaxed and confident wandering the stage.

Of course, good political speeches require both presentation and substance. Margaret Thatcher’s warning to ‘never speak on a subject about which the audience knows more than you do’ still holds, regardless of where on the political spectrum the speaker fits. Delivered badly, however, even the best of knowledge is lost. Good knowledge requires effective delivery.

So as the leaders and speechwriters in all the main political parties start preparing for the autumn conference speeches over the summer they will be worrying about both substance and the presentational style to choose.

The more adventurous (or the more desperate) should also look to introduce a new option, one that reflects the ‘multi-screen world’ which mobile phones and social networks are giving us. As people look at a politician, in person or on screen, they increasingly do so with a screen to hand, one eye on the politician and the other eye on the screen, hearing the politician, taking in the electronic reaction of other people and spreading their own responses too. Audiences both clap and tweet their praise; they boo and share their criticism.

Why then should party leader speeches at conference still be just the one medium of party leader speaking to the masses? We already have the well-established trope of an introductory video. An innovative speech would see not only the speechwriters fret to ensure the best soundbites are of tweetable length. It would also see accompanying graphics up on screen, illustrating and reinforcing the points the speaker makes. If the audience wants a multi-screen experience, provide it – and by providing it, have more influence over how the speech is received.

TV presenters have used supporting graphics successfully (and when the art department goes wild, disastrously too) for years. There is a simple reason supporting graphics are popular on so many channels and in so many countries: they work.

Now why wouldn’t a politician want to take an idea that works and adapt it for their own use?

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