x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 22 January 2018

Are you still listening? The politicians can't seem to shut up

There are many ways to give an effective speech – but many more ways to give a bad one.

It was Winston Churchill, one of the greatest orators of the 20th century, who said "there are only two things more difficult than making a speech: climbing a wall that is leaning into you, and kissing a girl who is leaning away from you".

While I've had little experience of the former (and modesty forbids me from commenting on the latter), the art of successful speechifying has been much on my mind of late, because I'm about to hold forth myself at a gala dinner in London this month and I'm desperate for some tips.

As seen in some of the excruciating Oscar acceptance speeches of recent years, actors don't necessarily make the best public speakers. And in any case, making a speech appear impromptu and newly minted requires weeks of painstaking rehearsal. Too polished a delivery and you can come across as hectoring, but loosen your tie and pepper your words with "ers" and "ums" and you may look clumsy.

Happily, with the US election campaigns gathering momentum and the political conference season just winding up in the UK, I've had an unprecedented opportunity to watch the professionals in action.

At his party's annual gathering last month, Nick Clegg, the British deputy prime minister and leader of the Liberal Democrats, went for the "ordinary Joe" approach by sporting a cheap suit straight from the nearest department store. His delivery was folksy and unadorned, polishing his image as a friendly, unthreatening, average man in the street.

Given his party's calamitous poll ratings, he might soon be in the street for real. But the delegates loved it and he duly received a standing ovation.

Prime Minister David Cameron, by contrast, plumped for the "I'm in charge" variation. Snappily dressed, hair carefully coiffed and with one foot resting on the dais as if pressing an imaginary accelerator pedal, he fixed his audience with a gimlet eye and delivered a stark diagnosis of the world's economic prospects in the crisp, authoritarian tones of a gunslinger.

But perhaps the most impressive performance was that of Ed Miliband, leader of the opposition Labour party. Due to his gawky appearance and unproven political experience, Mr Miliband has struggled to throw off the image of a college student. A lacklustre speech at his party conference this month would almost certainly have shortened his political career.

Yet his display was flawless, delivered without the aid of the ubiquitous teleprompter or even handwritten notes. He roamed the stage like a big game hunter looking to bag an antelope: eyes swivelling, hands punching the air for emphasis. Churchill, one felt, would surely have approved.

But even his assured performance paled by comparison with that of Mitt Romney in the first US presidential debate. Until recently Mr Romney had exuded all the charm of a mannequin, but in the first debate he seemed relaxed, even commanding, and his addresses to the camera reflected genuine emotion rather than the synthetic sincerity of the used-car salesman. Above all, he exuded that most priceless commodity - confidence.

President Barack Obama appeared rattled by his opponent's performance, but it goes without saying that he too is a modern master of oratory.

It is perhaps heartening that such an old-fashioned method of communication still actually matters. Mr Romney and Mr Miliband's approval ratings have soared in recent days. In an age in which Twitter, Facebook and all things digital hold sway, it's nice to know that a well-turned phrase and a winning smile can still influence the vote.

Meanwhile, I've taken on board all the various lessons in preparation for my own effort. And while I may never be able to manage Mr Cameron's authority, Mr Obama's intellect, Mr Miliband's gift for extemporising or Mr Romney's gleaming gnashers, at least I can offer a facsimile of Mr Clegg's cheap suit. A standing ovation can surely be the only outcome.

But perhaps the most important component for anybody pontificating in public is to know when to shut up. It was the American self-help guru Dorothy Sarnoff who famously said of public speaking: "Make sure you've finished speaking before your audience has finished listening." It's a maxim as valuable in real life as in politics.


Michael Simkins is an actor and writer based in London

On Twitter: @michael_simkins