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Everyone has a view on how well Ed Miliband is doing so far. But I haven’t seen much analysis of his actual speeches. There’s no question he can be a great speaker; if you’ve seen the video of his speech at his old school you would know that. But he could be better. The speechwriting literature is full of insights which he could use. For example, neuroscientists have shown that people make most of their political decisions based on their emotions. Brain scans show that when people make political choices, it’s the parts of the brain which regulate emotion which light up, not the rational part. That means that to be good, a political speech has to have some emotional resonance. Ed’s speech earlier today at the Royal Festival Hall missed some good opportunities to do that. In this post, I’ve just picked three ways he could have improved it: more pictures, fewer points, and a story structure. 1. More pictures To get an emotional reaction, you need to explain things in terms of sensory information. I could talk about poverty by telling you that 2.6 million children lived below the poverty line in 2009. Or I could talk about the disgusting smell of urine in the lifts that the landlord won’t fix, or seeing your block blackened by fire damage, just because the housing association wouldn’t stump up for an alarm that actually works. Ed missed some clear chances to ‘paint some pictures’. Here’s what he said: “Hundreds of millions of pounds, which should be being used for patient care, is being wasted on handing out redundancy notices to staff from primary care trusts who may well have to be rehired.” But he could have said this: “Tomorrow, someone in Britain is going to be told that they have diabetes. They’re going to be told that the NHS can’t afford as many diabetic specialist nurses as it needs any more. And they are going to have a doctor look them in the eyes and tell them that the lack of diabetic specialist nurses means that the very worst case scenario - amputation – is more likely. “And all this because this government would rather spend money firing staff than training diabetic specialist nurses. Staff who, by the way, will probably only have to be re-hired under the new system. “I’m sorry, but that is wrong.” 2. Fewer points In a recent book, two experts researched why some ideas stick with you, and others don’t. Here’s a memorable snippet: “A successful defence lawyer says; “If you argue ten points, even if each is a good point, when
they get back to the jury room they won’t remember any.” Ed’s Festival Hall speech made so many points that it ran the risk of diverting the listeners’ focus from the main point of the speech. Fixing this is pretty easy: he just has to focus down on one or two central ideas per speech. Even if that feels like he’s not saying enough, people will hear more. 3. Story structures I think the central bit of the speech was about care homes. That’s an emotive subject for many people. But to tap into those feelings, you need to shape the comments into a story structure. You could start by painting a picture of ordinary people who just wanted their mums and dads to be well cared-for in their homes. You then move on to say that that is what the care home company had traditionally provided: a good hot meal, someone there to help if grandpa had another fall, or if grandma was cold at night and needed someone to get another blanket. You then describe how the company sold out to a private equity firm, which started gambling with the firm’s assets, and left the company where it is today: in trouble. He might have said: “And today, in 2011, in Britain, the sixth richest country in the world, ordinary grandmas and grandpas might have to be kicked out of the care homes in which they put their trust.” Only then should Ed have introduced the points about how he was going to stand up for these people, how he was going to fight their corner. By giving the event a story structure, you give it much more emotional resonance. Many great politicians come to be defined by their speeches, and many of these speeches have been at party conference: • “The lady’s not for turning”; • “The white heat of technology”; • “Fight, and fight, and fight again, to save the party we love”… It’s also worth remembering that many came to be good speakers only through hours of practice, thanks to coaching, and with the help of good speechwriters. Chances are that at the coming party conference, one of Ed’s phrases will define him in the popular imagination for a generation. Let’s hope it’s a good one.
Here’s how Ed can improve his speeches #2
Ed’s speech yesterday was better than his last few, but he is still not making the best use of speeches to show leadership.
Politically, the tactic of the speech was to tie together the issues of excessive pay and benefit fraud into one package, put a ribbon marked ‘irresponsibility’ on it, and so claim ownership of ‘responsibility’ as a buzzword for Labour. Rhetorically, it was better than recent speeches in a few ways. He put a bit more passion into the delivery. He didn’t just talk about issues like antisocial behaviour, he illustrated them with pictures - a front garden strewn with litter - and sounds - “the throb of loud music played by the neighbour in the small hours”. And he condemned excessive pay without sounding like he was condemning wealth creation, by deftly comparing the pay of Sir John Rose, outgoing Chief Executive of Rolls Royce, with that of Sir Fred ‘the shred’ Goodwin, which was three times as much when the crisis hit. Perhaps the credit for the improvements should go to his speechwriter Greg Beales. But there is so much more he could do! Firstly, register. Yesterday’s speech mostly stayed on one register - exhortation. The language of exhortation was everywhere. He exhorted people not to “shirk their duties”, the Labour Party to “understand where New Labour succeeded and failed”, benefit claimants not to “abuse the trust of your neighbour”, businessmen not to “pay yourself an inflated salary to the detriment of your company, your shareholders or your staff”. He should have varied the tone a bit more. Part of the problem was the structure. He should structure the speech by register. So you have a clear ‘scolding’ section, a clear ‘attack’ section, a clear ‘uplifting’ section, and so on. The speech was almost all “finger-wagging” in tone, with stray sentences about his positive vision for the future scattered like crumbs throughout the text. Gather them up, put them together at the end, and you have a final, hopeful passage. Sentences criticising the government were also sprinkled around like asides. Group them together in a passage, tie them into your one central critique of the government, and you have a punchy, pugnacious passage which might hope to land a knock-out blow. That can transform a speech from a series of points into something which takes you on an emotional journey. The second problem is subtler. Speeches can perform actions. Think of Neil Kinnock using his party conference speech to denounce Militant, or Ronald Reagan using his at the Berlin Wall to challenge Mikhail Gorbachev to “tear down this wall”. Leaders should use their speeches to perform actions which are strong. Challenging, confronting, or taking a stand, are all strong actions. They show leadership. Exhorting is not a strong action. It has an air of exasperation about it. The irony is that in the question and answer session afterwards, Ed seemed much more pugnacious. He came across as much more combative than his speech made him seem. One of the strongest parts of this speech was when he performed a simple rhetorical action: drawing a line. Saying enough is enough. “No more”, he said. Unfortunately, what he was drawing a line under wasn’t really clear: “We did too little to ensure responsibility at the bottom. I say - no more.” Surely any ordinary voter would say - ‘no more… what, exactly?’ By not getting specific about what he was drawing a line under, he fluffed the chance for a strong passage.
What he could have said was: “When we were in government, we let companies get away with paying executives 145 times more than their own average workers were earning. I say – no more. When we get back into government, we will put workers in the boardroom so they are there to speak up when those decisions are made. “When we were in government, we let companies hide what they were paying their executives from the public. I say – no more. When we get back into government, we will force companies to publish how much they pay their top earners compared to the average worker. We will let the light shine in on corporate pay. “That way, consumers will be able to make their own decisions about which companies it’s ethical to give their money to.” These examples only use those policy ideas already in yesterday’s speech. Of course, once he settles on more, he’ll have more to work with. After all, rhetoric can only do so much. You can only really make hard, decisive speeches once you’ve made hard decisions.
Here’s How Ed Can Improve His Speeches #3
June 28th, 2011
Ed Miliband's speech on Saturday was designed to secure his control over the party and widen Labour's appeal. Here is how the speech used good framing to do that, and how subsequent speeches could build on it. Labour politics are normally framed in terms of right versus left, 'Blairites versus Brownites,' 'David supporters versus Ed supporters,’ and so on. If you think about Labour like that, then you are likely to listen to any leader’s speech and judge its suggestions on whether they move the party left or right. One of the things that Saturday’s speech did fairly well was to frame the changes in an advantageous way. It didn't draw your attention to the party's left-right choice. It instead drew your attention to a completely different choice: how the party makes decisions. That was encapsulated by the argument that "old Labour forgot about the public; new Labour forgot about the party." That frame helped Ed Miliband argue that Labour should make those political leftright choices by going with the grain of what the public wants, not against it. That in turn does the political work of gently disappointing those who want Labour to confront the public, and challenge and change their views. Emphasising that he saw his mission as winning the next General Election reinforced that. Many of the other changes - rejecting the suggestion of a 50% quota on female shadow cabinet members, and ditching the election for shadow cabinet posts, were probably designed to
increase the leader's power to pick a team which he thought were best placed to fight that election. Some Labour party members might interpret it as a trimming of the party's internal democracy. But I expect Tory party members will interpret it as the actions of a leader who is serious about making the public vote Labour again. The speech also charged the government with recklessness. The government has been incredibly reckless with the economy and the NHS. But I doubt that the ‘recklessness’ charge will stick, as the successive u-turns and tinkering show a government constantly trying to recalibrate everything but its economic policy to limit damage. That’s the opposite of recklessness. Still, trying to tie the government’s faults together and label them with a single criticism is the right tactic. Once that is done, the next task for subsequent speeches is to develop a single unified criticism of not just the programme, but the ideas which motivate this government. And the stage after that is to develop a single unified expression of the ideas which motivate Labour, and which would tie together its programme for government. And that’s probably the hardest thing of all to do, because of course, any party, any programme, even any single politician, is motivated by a complex muddle of ideas. One idea would be for Labour to advocate the central principle of ‘fair play’ and ‘getting what you deserve.’ This isn’t original. But it’s a way of expressing our values which has a few advantages: Firstly, it can be used to express some of our instincts. For example on high pay: executive pay is 145 times average pay. That ratio is double what it was a decade ago, but executives aren’t working twice as hard as in 2001, and productivity isn’t twice what it was in 2001. So executives are getting more than they deserve, and that’s why we’re concerned about it. Our position on climate change is because our kids do not deserve to have to clean up the mess we made of the planet. Our position on welfare is that if you’re too ill to work, you deserve to be supported, but if you’re not, you don’t. ‘Getting what you deserve’ is a crucial instinct behind many Labour values. Secondly, it can also be used to contrast our values with the government’s. While Labour stand for ‘getting what you deserve,’ the government stand for ‘taking as much as you can.’ They tried to allow price competition in the NHS despite the evidence that price competition reduces the quality of healthcare. That’s letting companies take as much as they can at the expense of the patient. They tried to privatise forests and let companies take whatever they can from charging us to visit them. And even after the Royal Bank of Scotland messed up so badly that it should have gone out of business and had to be rescued by the government, they agreed to pay its Chief Executive nearly £7 million. Needless to say, he took what he could. From a speechwriting point of view, one of the next challenges is to add historical weight to Miliband’s speeches. One way of doing this is by expressing the continuity in values. After all, the Grand National Consolidated Trades Union was built on the idea that workers deserved to be allowed to work less than eighteen hours a day, the NHS was built on the idea that you didn’t deserve to die from treatable diseases just because you couldn’t afford the treatment, and today the idea of the living wage is built on the idea that if you’re working full time, you don’t deserve to be paid less than bare subsistence. In short, I would like to see subsequent speeches tie their analysis into a simple expression of a motivating value, and show how it has been consistent through the party’s history.
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