Two lessons in public speaking from Gordon Brown

Gordon Brown’s speeches are easier on the eye than the ear. Which suggests he might be doing one or two things wrong. So what can Brown’s oratorical oversights teach the rest of us about getting things right on the podium?

The right length for a speech

Today’s conference keynote was nearly 6,500 words long and took a shade under an hour to deliver. That’s way too long! What’s going on? Has Brown’s prodigious memory failed him? Has he forgotten about his recent talk to the TED conference in Oxford?

The TED speaker challenge is to give the talk of your life in 18 minutes or less. Incredibly Brown rose to the challenge delivering his in less than 17 minutes. The TED site is a must for anyone interested in the art of speaking because it has a number of videos of outstanding speakers wowing their audience in 18 minutes, or less. And it’s testament to the first rule of showbiz: “always leave ’em wanting more.”

However good a speaker you are, and no matter how fascinating the content of your speech is, audiences have very limited powers of concentration. The last thing you want to do is offer them a gem only to look up and discover they’re either comatose or staring trancelike at the ceiling.

The best use of rhetorical devices

Today’s speech didn’t get off to too bad a start. From the outset Brown left us in no doubt about what we were going to hear. He was going to lay before us a stark and momentous choice – a choice that would have important consequences for the future of our country. A choice that would ultimately boil down to which way we decide to vote in the coming general election: a choice between two parties.

Antithesis, or contrast, is one of the most powerful and widely used rhetorical devices we have at our disposal. The problem for Brown is that like some star-crossed lover he appears to be besotted with it, to the exclusion of all others. And like many of his other speeches, the rhetorical structure of today’s speech was dominated by it.

But over-reliance on a single rhetorical device in a speech is the cardinal sin of rhetoric because the key to speaking, and writing, that keeps an audience on its toes is variety. The repetitive use of the same rhetorical scheme – like tricolon (patterns of three), alliteration and contrast – results in monotony and boredom. It’s all too easy for speakers to forget that audiences are people, just like you and me – and just like us they understand that variety is the spice of life. I love chocolate but if I had to eat it as part of every meal, I think I’d soon tire of it.


  1. Brown’s body language was analysed by Jon Culshaw on The One Show last night – new to the repertoire is the inclusive ‘hug’ move, bringing the arms together horizontally with the palms facing towards the torso.

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