Gordon Brown’s problem isn’t performance – it’s the words!

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!


  1. I agree entirely about his language, which is not only abstract but is packed with too many numbers, too much detail and is very long-winded.

    But I do think that he has some performance problems too – one or two of which were touched on in my first ever blog posts at http://bit.ly/1MhFa4 and http://bit.ly/pnVVO

    In addition, I’ve heard quite a few people complaining about his intonation lacking light and shade, his curious jaw twitch and the fact that he looks to the left far more frequently than to the right – maybe because he’s only got one eye, but that’s no excuse for ignoring half the audience for lengthy periods! I’ve also heard people going on about his gestures being too robotic and/or contrived.

    Apparently trivial details, I know, but, coupled with his abstract and verbose language, they tend to stack up together on the negative side when it comes to gleaning an ‘overall impression’.

    Then there’s the most delicate question of all: does it help to have a Scottish accent, however less marked it may have become over the years, when the vast majority of voters are English. I don’t think it Kinnock’s Welsh accent helped him (providing for the creation of the nick-name ‘Welsh windbag’ – which I heard again on the news today). Blair, on the other hand, though he was born and went to school in Scotland, sounded as English as David Cameron.

  2. Martin Shovel says

    Thanks for your thoughts, Max. As I wrote in my piece, Brown’s definitely no Obama or Blair. And it’s also true that he does possess his fair share of physical quirks. But I’m still convinced that with help – from professionals like us – he might have developed into a much more effective speaker, and leader.

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