Page last updated at 11:38 GMT, Tuesday, 20 November 2012
Have we lost the art of oratory?

By Max Atkinson
Speechwriter to former Lib Dem leader Paddy Ashdown

In the 1980s, political speeches were an integral part of British electioneering and of the way in which political communication was covered by the media.

Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, accepts the applause from the delegates at the 1983 Tory Party Conference
Mrs Thatcher's conference performances were frequently barn-storming

General elections - as seen on TV - came across as lively contests between politicians who were doing their best to persuade us with passion and conviction.

Over the years, the UK media has broadcast fewer and fewer excerpts from speeches by leading politicians, both during general elections and at other times (such as the party conference season).

For their part, politicians have either accepted or encouraged this shift in emphasis by making fewer and fewer set-piece speeches at large-scale rallies during election campaigns - and subjecting themselves to more and more interviews and Q&A based programmes - culminating, in 2010, with the first ever TV debates between party leaders.

This approach has pushed speeches to the sidelines, and interviews have replaced them as the main form of political communication with the British public. Yet politicians still don't seem to have realised that interviews do not work for them in the way speeches do.

Snakes and ladders

If you think about the children's board game, snakes and ladders, speeches work like ladders for politicians and interviews work like snakes in the board-game of political discourse and debate.

Speeches can propel a politician upwards on the board towards the coveted prize of positive news headlines. In a speech, politicians and their speechwriters have complete control over what they say and, just as importantly, how they say it.

If they prompt cheers and applause, scenes of audience enthusiasm and approval are transmitted to a wider audience via television and radio.

Well-crafted speeches have the power to transport the listener, to inspire them or change their opinions, to trigger spontaneous applause or move them to tears

Interviews are lengthy, discursive and seriously short on the kinds of well-crafted quotable quotes that can be written into a speech. They feature politicians regularly breaking one of the most basic conversational rules of all: namely that questions should be followed by answers.

This has produced a generation of politicians who have become so skilled at avoiding giving straight answers to questions that interviews are, arguably, at best boring and, at worst, extremely irritating to the voting public.

Although there are plenty of books of 'great speeches', it can surely be no coincidence that there are very few (if any) books made up of transcripts from 'great interviews'.

And this is why I've been mystified by the fact that British politicians are making fewer and fewer speeches.

After all, when playing snakes and ladders, why would anyone in their right mind voluntarily opt for a set of rules with an in-built bias towards landing you on a snake?

Passion or enthusiasm?

The quasi-conversational nature of interviews limits the time available to develop any particular point to seconds rather than minutes. Like the conversationally worded speech, memorable lines or displays of passion or enthusiasm from the speaker are few and far between.

If politicians seriously believe that viewers and listeners lack the intelligence to see at a glance when they are being evasive, they can hardly complain when people conclude that they are patronising or arrogant.

Tony Blair's first speech to the European Parliament

If they think that audiences will be impressed or inspired by the tortuous circumlocutions in which so much of their evasiveness is expressed, they should not be surprised when people conclude that they are out of touch with the way real people tick.

We hear that politicians are becoming worried about their low esteem in the eyes of the public, and about growing voter apathy. Perhaps they should consider whether one factor might be that the way they speak in interviews is at best bland or boring, and at worst evasive and downright irritating.


Speeches present carefully developed arguments in language robust enough to have survived the immediate moment of delivery to become a form of historical literature.

Good speech-writers write with their ears, they understand the language of the written word. Well-crafted speeches have the power to transport the listener, to inspire them or change their opinions, to trigger spontaneous applause or move them to tears. Badly written speeches leave audiences struggling to stay awake.

The 'Stalin to Mr Bean' comment had great impact

Great speeches prompt regular bursts of applause giving audiences an incentive to listen for more opportunities to show their approval.

And simple rhetorical devices such as contrasts (eg "I come to bury Caesar, not to praise him"; "…from Stalin to Mr Bean..."), three-part lists ("Education, education, education") and imagery are still as effective today as they were when first recommended by the Greeks 2,000 years ago.

Our parliamentarians have not lost the art of oratory, but the adversarial nature of discussions in the chamber, the current trend for prioritising media-trained interview soundbites over the flow and rhythm of sentences and paragraphs, and a lack of appetite for broadcasting speeches certainly has silenced them.

Max Atkinson was advisor and speech writer to former Lib Dem leader Paddy Ashdown. He was writing as part of Parliament Week, which runs from 19 - 25 November and aims to engage the public with the work of Parliament.


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