Let me put myself in the firing line. When it comes to public speaking, I believe that Gordon Brown’s problem has little do with the way he performs.
In fact, I’ll go further and say that when you take stellar performers like Obama and Blair out of the equation, Brown can deliver a speech as well as the next man, or woman.
Before you dismiss me as delusional, let me tell you I am not alone – there are other communications professionals who share my view. In today’s Guardian, theatre critic Michael Billington – a man who knows a thing or two about acting – describes Brown’s performance at yesterday’s Labour Party conference as “highly effective.”
And a couple of weeks ago at the UK Speechwriters’ Guild conference, I heard Philip Collins – Tony Blair’s chief speechwriter, not the drummer – say exactly the same thing. Interestingly, Collins went on to tell us that, unlike Blair, Brown insists on writing his own speeches. And there, I think, lies the cause of Brown’s plight.
Brown’s a distinguised academic. But the academic style is about as far away from the language of great oratory as you can get. The problem for Brown, the academic, is his love of abstract words and ideas.
Great leaders express their vision with concrete words, not abstract words. They paint verbal pictures that an audience can see, and feel. Billington puts his finger on it when he writes that having begun his speech with a list of Labour’s achievements, “it would have been rhetorically effective to end on some of its proposed radical changes. Instead, Brown ended up with an appeal to abstract principles that wasn’t nearly as stirring.”
When, at the climax of his hour-long speech, Brown urges us to “never stop believing we can make a Britain equal to its best ideals,” my mind’s eye is blinded by the glare of abstraction, and I am unmoved. Things don’t get any better when he urges me to “never, never stop believing. And because the task is difficult the triumph will be even greater.”
Believe what? Task? Triumph? Abstract words like these don’t grab me. They don’t conjure up images – and without images, I’m struggling to see, feel or get excited by what I’m hearing.
A key theme of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s inspirational ‘I have a dream’ speech is reconciliation. But the abstract word ‘reconciliation’ doesn’t make a single appearance throughout the speech.
King’s lesson for Brown is simple. The best way to inspire people with an abstract idea is to find a way of describing it concretely. Don’t use a word like reconciliation when you can have a much more powerful impact on your audience by showing them precisely what reconciliation looks and feels like.
“I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood.” Over to you Gordon!