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What do political speechwriters have against paragraphs?

by Nextness published April 6, 2011 posted in Insights

Julia Gillard | David Cameron

A few weeks ago, blogger Jonathan Rowson posed a question: what do political speechwriters have against paragraphs? It arose after looking at the transcript of a speech by UK Prime Minister David David Cameron. “Whatever you think of the content of Cameron’s speech, the written form of the speech is pretty striking. Most points are expressed in single or double lines, with three line points being the exception, and one or two deviant ideas spilling over into four lines,” Rowson wrote. It’s a common practice on our fair shores, as you can see from this speech by Julia Gillard. Why? We put the question to Justin Di Lollo, the Managing Director of STW’s Hawker Britton – Australia’s leading government relations and government lobbying firm.

This was Justin’s take:

In 1999 the legendary Labor political speechwriter, Graham Freudenberg, told me that despite the rise of the TV ten-second-grab, the speech remained “the essence of the politician’s function”.  Despite the rise of the internet, Twitter and all things even further dumbing-down the ten-second-grab, the ensuing 12 years has done nothing to dent the sagacity of Freudenberg’s words.

This being said, the speech does have to be put into context.  The political speech isn’t intended to be a magnum opus (just check out one of Mark Latham’s books if you want that!).  They’re not supposed to be the most in-depth, rigorous exploration of conflicting policy points of view (this is the role of white papers, reviews and the like).

Indeed, the tried-and-tested political speech has much more in common with the modern tweet or status update: a chance to put a simple, easy-to-digest set of reasoning around a political position.

So while an effective political speech must, of course, be pithy and meaningful it should also be well-timed, punchy and to the point or risk losing the attention of the audience to the things they’d rather be thinking about.

My wise History 101 lecturer said “only 10% of you are listening to what I’m saying – 10% are thinking of what you had for breakfast, another 10% what you want to have for lunch.  The remaining 70% are thinking about sex”.  The same is true for political speeches: you just can’t keep most audiences focused on deeply complex concepts in this communication format – and nor should you try, it’s not respectful of the audience.  Even considering this, a political speech isn’t like a lecture – you don’t read up beforehand and do a tutorial discussion afterwards!

Just have a look at the text of the Gettysburg address.  It’s only 10 sentences long – and all of them worth reading.  Lucky the jaded post-twitter generation wasn’t around to lambast Lincoln for lack of substance!

Without being too churlish about those criticising lack of substance in political speeches, it’s worth remembering speeches aren’t really designed to be read as text. They lose much of the non-verbal communication that is so essential in a performance.  If you’ve ever tried reading the transcript of a radio interview, you’ll get my meaning – some forms of political communication need to be watched or listened to, not read.

Political pundits hungry for more detail would be well-advised to avoid speeches and go for the more boring printed word.  But all that damned reading might take them away from their blogging for too long…

Justin Di Lollo is the Managing Director of Hawker Britton. The company tweets here; Justin can be followed at @JustinDiLollo.


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