Thursday, September 21, 2006


Speechblogging: Me Again

We’re just home, and knackered. So while I’d like to have blogged promptly about Ming’s speech – excellent, though like Paddy and Charles he’s immediately adopted one over-used and instantly imitable mannerism for his speeches (answers tomorrow) – I’ll publish my own from yesterday’s disappointing ‘Meeting the Challenge’ debate instead, as I’ve done all the thinking I need to about that one (writing your own speeches really gets in the way of blogging). If you hurry, you might also get today’s Independent, where I’m given a good writeup; it’s cheaper to physically buy the whole paper than one online article.

I usually think about things a fair old deal before I post them, and when I post, I tend to post at length. Yes, I know, neither of these observations are likely to be a surprise to you, but what they boil down to is that it generally takes me a long time to write an article. I thought we’d all have a bit of a rest at Conference as far as blogging went, but instead it’s been hugely competitive, with lots of people writing excellent blog pieces about twenty times a day. Well, I didn’t, so my Conference impressions (not the impression I did of Paddy Ashdown last night while failing to notice him about twenty feet away, I should say) will gradually appear over the next few days, at a terribly unnewsworthy pace. Sorry about that.

However, along with all the obvious reasons for writing still more slowly than usual at Conference (being in debates, being asleep, being deprived of sleep, being unwell, being less enthused by typing than I was by chatting to and trading hugs with nice people I only see once a year), speeches slowed my blogging down. Unexpectedly, blogging also slowed my speechwriting down. Did any other bloggers make speeches (as far as I know, I’m the only one to accede to Rob Fenwick’s wishes and give a plug to Liberal Democrat Voice)? I’d be interested to know what the crossover is, because as well as speechmaking distracting from my blogging ‘duties’, blogging may have significantly changed my speaking style.

How I Make A Speech

Usually, my speeches don’t have a lot of rehearsal. For many speeches, I’ve bounded onto the platform with only half a dozen key words written on the back of my hand. I suspect this approach, giving full vent to inspiration and able to respond instantly to the flow of the debate, has seen both my best and my worst speeches. Talking on the fly lets you keep constant eye contact with the audience, which always looks more effective and makes your voice more clear than if you’re looking down. It can be far more fluent than a written speech. But if inspiration doesn’t strike, it can also be a train wreck, and I’ve had a few disasters, too (particularly when I was more prone to stammering if I lost confidence).

Most often, I get up to speak carrying one sheet of paper. I’ll have key words for a very rough structure in big, well-spaced letters, but I’ll usually write out two lines in full. If you want my top tip for a good speech, spend a lot of your time preparing just two lines: the first and the last. The first one should get your audience listening, and the last one get them clapping. If you’re speaking under a time limit, having your final line or short paragraph ready is particularly vital; at Lib Dem Conference, for example, if that amber – or, worse, red – light comes on, drop everything and run straight to your rousing climax. Better to skip a bit than trail away uselessly when your microphone is switched off.

Both my speeches this week were typed out in full, which is something I’ve hardly ever done. And it’s all because of blogging. I wanted to post them afterwards, which meant I had to type them in. So they took an awful lot longer to prepare, particularly as the speeches then needed rehearsal so I wouldn’t lose my place or simply have to read the whole time, and I suspect my style was significantly altered (any regular Alex-watchers able to tell?). My lines were probably sharper, less rambling, but my delivery was more flat; I know I used my hands a lot less than I otherwise would, and I was very conscious of glancing down a lot rather than looking confidently around the hall. This was starting to make me so uncomfortable by part-way into yesterday’s speech that I turned it into a visual gag to make the rest of the speech seem more natural, picking up my script and squinting ostentatiously at it at the point where I told the Conference which sub-paragraphs were the ones in which our key priorities had been secreted. And rather oddly, having to work out every single line in advance meant much less time to craft the usually vital first and last lines; I thought my ‘Meeting the Challenge’ speech had a rather feeble opening, and my speech at the Bloggers’ Reception had a rather feeble close.

So why did I put in to speak in this particular debate? The ‘Meeting the Challenge’ paper aimed to set out our values and whole policy direction, and should have been the most important thing this week. The most telling thing about the debate was how few people were interested in speaking, and how few representatives or media people bothered coming in to listen. Two years ago, I’d closed the debate on behalf of the party leadership (yes, difficult to believe, isn’t it?) on a very similar paper – another collection of policies pointing the way forward, based on heavy consultation, and also setting out our themes, which formed our ‘pre-Manifesto’. Though a strange curse seemed to fall afterwards on several of the key people behind it, at the time it was a big success, with a packed, lively debate and a real sense of what it stood for. With these ‘pre-Manifesto’ papers and full Manifestos coming round every four years and always doing a good job in bringing our message together, I found it incredible that this similar project managed to make such a hash of it, and that’s what propelled me to be the only speaker against the paper as a whole.

In the past, my speeches against policy papers have tended to be blizzards of detail, either blasting as many things wrong with a paper as I could cram in or listing as many things missing from it as I could think of. As most of the detail in this was fairly innocuous but I thought the ‘narrative’ was fatally lacking, I tried an experiment. This time, my speech was going to have very little detail; instead, I would see if I could construct a narrative about why it didn’t work. I’m not sure how successful that approach was, but it allowed me to be less surgically precise and more cruelly mocking, and I suspect wound more of the paper’s supporters up than a detailed critique would have done; I know from experience in what you might call ‘political defence’ that it’s fair easier to rebut a specific accusation than a generalised ‘conceptual’ attack, particularly if that nebulous feeling strikes a chord (as my speech evidently did).

One of the excitements of a Lib Dem debate is that you’re never quite sure if you’ll actually be chosen to speak or if all your preparation will be for nothing. Richard points out languidly from where he reclines that this practice is the reverse of the other conferences, where speakers are carefully primed, but they all know nothing they say will make the slightest difference to the outcome. In the event, I was called to give the third speech of the debate. Ed Davey MP and Derek Young, the prospective candidate in one of our top target seats for the Scottish Parliament, spoke before me. Both gave excellent speeches and I opened mine by saying so; if only the paper had been as inspiring…

What I Said to Mock the Challenge

“Conference, this paper set itself a challenge, and it’s our job to see if it measures up. Usually, we get the themes right but the devil’s in the detail; here, many of the details are fine, but the theme is less a clarion call than an overheard hubbub; too many voices, none distinct.

“Now, Conference, to meet the challenge of new technology, this is a multimedia speech. Unlike Vince, I don't have slides, but those of you with laptops can read an article I’ve written about the enormous problems with the chapter on Inequality on the brilliant new website Liberal Democrat Voice, so I won’t repeat it – just ask yourself, when we believe in freedom from poverty, ignorance and conformity, why does the chapter on Inequality say, like a student socialist who’s never lived in the real world, that never mind discrimination or opportunity, the only unfairness that exists in the world is money.

“But the key problem with this paper is not the tunnel vision in the details, but simply that it fails its main job. That job is to set out what we stand for. No – that sounds deathly dull, doesn’t it? That job is to inspire us, to enthuse us, to tell our story. It’s supposed to be our narrative.

“Well, how good a read is that story? Have you read it? No, of course you haven’t. But you tried, didn’t you? Struggled a couple of paragraphs, then thought, ‘Oh, this is hard going’. Don’t worry – I’m a policy wonk, and it was a struggle for me. You know the tax paper yesterday; whatever you thought of it, the title told you the message. The introduction expanded on the message. The summary turned the message into some policy headlines. Then the chapters turned the summary into detail… And it all made sense. But when the tax paper is more exciting than the message paper – much more exciting – something's wrong with the message.

“Here you’ve got Trust in People: Making Britain Free, Fair and Green. That’s a bad start, isn’t it, with about three titles stuck together and you keep forgetting bits of them? Then there’s Ming’s foreword which is rather good, then an introduction that goes somewhere different, but there’s no summary and the chapters don’t expand on the introduction, just come at you from all different directions, none of them relating to the other bits, none of it building up in any order – as if, whoops, they dropped the papers on the floor and just printed them at random. The motion commending this paper does a better job of setting out our message in three lines than this manages in fifty pages.

“Conference, we’ve had plenty of practice in putting together lists of policy themes – it’s called a Manifesto. We do them quite often, and they’ve all been better than Trust in Britain: Making Freedom Green and Fairly Popular. The exciting climax of Trust in Freedom: Making People Turn Fairly Green is that it commits us to our two top policy and campaigning priorities for the next few years. They’re not in the motion. They’re not in the foreword, they’re not in the introduction, they’re not at the end. They’re in sub-paragraphs 3.2.4 and 4.3.1. And not at the beginning of those lengthy paragraphs, you understand – our top priorities shouldn’t be too easy to find. It’s telling you, ‘Conference, you’re very naughty, and you don’t deserve to know unless you eat up every word.’ The priorities are climate change and fighting inequality, by the way, but you have to play hide and seek to know it, and this doesn’t say how they link to each other, let alone to anything else in the paper.

“Conference, let me tell you a story. It’s a true story. I was in a long queue recently, to meet some actors from Doctor Who, and a seven-year-old there with his dad got a bit restless waiting. So he made up a story for us. A good story needs inspiration, interesting details, emotional drive, and a structure to make sense of it all. Now, this boy’s story wasn’t the best story in the world – in fact, it had a lot in common with Trust in Fairness: Making Greenland British for Free. Neither of them have a lot of inspiration, but they both have a lot of details like namechecks of things we’d all heard before (famous monsters, famous policies; much the same thing). Both of them have no emotional drive at all. But his story did have a beginning, a middle and an end, and I can still remember what it was about, so that seven-year-old had a better grasp of basic narrative than Trust in People: Making Britain Free, Fair and Green does, even if, on the fifth try, I’ve finally managed to remember that bloody title in the right order. A talented seven-year-old will go on to do better, but the people who wrote this should know better. Be honest – there is no-one you would give this to to tell them what we’re about.

“Conference, we deserve a message that inspires us – Liberalism is inspiring. This isn’t. We deserve a policy direction that can inform our campaigning – not makes you play hunt the thimble even to find out what it’s telling us to campaign on. And we deserve more competent storytelling than a seven-year-old can manage. This sets out to Meet the Challenge, but it fails the challenge completely. So I challenge you – what is this paper good for? And if it’s good for nothing, what’s the point in voting for it?”

Oh, and though I’ll write about the rest of the debate in more detail tomorrow, depending on how much sleep I’ve had, here’s what Simon Carr had to say. The Independent wants to charge you 70p to read it (if you buy the whole paper on paper), or £1 online for just this one sketch. Flattering as it is to be quoted, and astounding in my experience of newspapers to be quoted pretty accurately, I don’t charge for my words, and Mr Carr’s paper didn’t pay me for the words of mine they’re commercially exploiting; so here, without charge, are his:

From Simon Carr’s Sketch in today’s Independent
‘Speech writers wanted - ordinary people need not apply’

…And then on to the ghastliness of the final big report-back. It was the Trust in People: Make Britain Free Fair and Green report of the Meeting the Challenge Working Party. You may be able to add some punctuation to make sense of it.

Alex Wilcock denounced everything to do with this wretched piece of pulp. The title was bad enough, in his view, there being three of them. There was Ming's preface but it didn't connect with the introduction and the chapters were incoherent and unrelated to each other as though they'd been picked up from the floor in a random order. There was no summary and the two most important themes were buried in paragraphs 3.2.4 and 4.3.1. A seven-year-old boy had a better grip of structure, narrative and memorable detail. "What is it good for?" he asked. "If nothing, what's the point in voting for it?" A heroic question (unanswered).
Parliamentary reaction: one Parliamentarian who I shall keep anonymous gave me a kiss and exclaimed, “That was brilliant! Very mean, though”; on the other hand, Ming Campbell walked off the stage after I finished speaking. Oops.

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Oh, bless you, Anders!

Though I don't believe I've ever had a Leader walk off after I spoke before (Roy Jenkins did after my first ever speech, but he was long into the Lords by then). Besides, not only have I been less confrontational in recent years, but even with Wednesday's speech, Ming's foreword got just about my only kindly word...
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