Speech of the Month, June 2024 - I abstain!

Nobody can envy the main contenders' communication skills, but here's what we can learn no to do from them...

Speech of the Month, June 2024 - I abstain!

Hand on heart, I’ve struggled with June’s subject for Speech of the Month. This has surprised me. At the start of the month, I thought, ‘What with the general, this month’s post will write itself.’ I know. Hope over experience. I really can’t think of one stand-out – in a good way - public speaking moment.

The only one that comes to mind was when Robert Blackstock, during the leader head-to-head debate, asked Rishi Sunak and Keir Starmer, “Are you two really the best we’ve got?” The audience’s immediate laughter suggested he’d verbalised a shared sentiment. 

So in a break from tradition – because I can’t identify what we can all learn from a stunning speech that we all have access to – I’m going to list the ‘Don’t Do’s’ that this month’s campaigns and debates have thrown up.   

None of the leaders address the question they’ve been asked before bridging to their key messages

I don’t mind politicians getting their key messages over, that’s the deal, but their inability to segue to them with any finesse is gobsmacking. I don’t want to hear a member of the public ask, “My sister has been waiting for over three years for a knee replacement. Can you tell me why, and if you’re doing anything to reduce such waits?” To then hear, “I’m sorry about your sister’s wait, Nina. With changes to welfare reform, we will raise over £12 billion….” Answer the question first before banging on about welfare reform, you key-message-pushing android!

None of them are especially sorry to hear questioners’ stories of misery and frustration

So I wish they’d stop the automatic, “I’m sorry to hear.” It doesn’t make them sound empathetic - as no doubt advised; it makes them seem robotic. 

Sunak’s scaremongering 

Of course, the leaders should go on the attack, state how the other party’s policies are weak, unworkable, fanciful etc. But rather than doing that, Sunak’s been making up the amount of tax we’ll pay under a Labour government and suggesting that war is imminent and Labour won’t be prepared for it. For all we know another pandemic might be imminent or a year-long doctors’ strike - is Sunak prepared for that? Then again, it’s quite difficult to attack Starmer on policy because…

Starmer’s too frightened to say anything meaningful! 

Shouldn’t a would-be prime minister be, at least, courageous?

And another thing…

Overused phrases

Have you noticed that whenever Rachel Reeves is asked a question about what she’d do if she becomes chancellor, she immediately says, “If we’re privileged enough to form the next government…” and then comes the answer. I appreciate she says this line so as not to appear presumptuous, but it’s faux modesty and its repetition is really bloody irritating. 

Lack of humour

When Robert Blackstock asked his, “Are you two really the best we’ve got?” zinger, Sunak and Starmer both looked nervous, they ignored the audience's amused reaction and then talked about what they’ve done in the past to suggest they’re really great guys. Blair wouldn’t have done that. He’d have read the room and bounced back with a line of levity, something like, “So Robert, I get the impression you’re underwhelmed by Rishi and myself.” Eyes twinkling with mischief and the thrill of clash, and then he’d say, “But here’s why you should be excited by me…” and go on to detail his fabulous plans.  

The silly nonsense about work-life balance

There’s no doubt that when Keir Starmer said he’d pencil out Friday evenings if he becomes PM because that’s family time, he was appealing to the female vote and setting himself up as an all-round good egg who knows what’s truly important in life. Only, it turns out, the PM’s diary is kept blank as of Friday 5pm, so he’s hardly some sort of family-focused paragon after all. What a disingenuous boast! Still, it didn’t warrant…

The Tories and the right-wing media calling him out for being work shy

Say what?! For one, if the president of the USA called him at 7pm (UK time) on a Friday because he (well, when will it ever be a she?) had got wind that Israel was about to invade Cyprus before Hezbollah did, do we really think Starmer would say, “Tell him I’ll call back once I've finished playing Twister with the kids.” And for two, he’s one of the few people at Westminster who’ve ever done a proper job outside it. The idea that doesn’t know how to put in a shift is ridiculous. 

And another thing…

The verbal dodging to avoid a yes or no

There was an excruciating example of this on Question Time when a member of the audience asked, “Will the parties admit that tragedies like Sara Alhashimi are a direct result of a failure to provide safe and legal immigration routes?” Fiona Bruce immediately went to Yvette Cooper who, without saying ‘No’ said no. The audience ended up shouting “Yes or No?” at her, and still she wouldn’t say the ‘No’ that she clearly meant. It was embarrassing. She did well not to blush. 

I have some sympathy with Cooper. The reason she didn’t want to say No was because if she did then the media could put out the message ‘Labour will not open safer routes for migrants’ which would appal the progressive, urban-elite Labour vote which the party can’t afford to lose. Maybe if we reacted less to headlines then politicians could be franker?

So let’s flip my complaint list and draw out some positive do’s:

  • Answer questions fully before making the points you're desperate to make
  • Only empathise or sympathise if you truly mean it
  • Refute the arguments your opponent is making rather than dreaming up weaknesses you can’t prove exist 
  • Read the room and be yourself

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