Progress | Centre-left Labour politics

Learning the art of speeches

In Alfred Hitchcock’s 1935 classic, The 39 Steps, Robert Donat’s character is on the run from the British authorities and a network of foreign spies, being chased through the streets of a small Scottish town. In desperation, he opens a door at random and is immediately seized, not by the police, but by a set of local party officials – we aren’t told which party – just about to hold a public meeting as part of their by-election campaign. Slowly, Donat realises that they have mistaken him for the guest speaker and, to avoid his pursuers, he must instantly make a rousing political speech that won’t give him away. His speech peaks with this half revealing, half meaningless peroration:

‘And I ask your candidate and all those who love their fellow men to set themselves resolutely to make this world a happier a place to live in.

‘A world where no nation plots against nation, where no neighbour plots against neighbour, where there is no persecution or hunting down.

‘Where everyone gets a square deal and a sporting chance and where people try to help and not to hinder.

‘A world from which suspicion and cruelty and fear have been forever banished – that is the sort of world I want, is that the sort of world you want?  Right! That’s all I have to say, goodnight.’

Not many people can do a Donat, so there are books like The Art of Speeches and Presentations by Times columnist and Tony Blair speechwriter Philip Collins. It’s a little bit like trying to learn the piano by written correspondence with a virtuoso pianist: someone who writes brilliantly by instinct, trying to tell you how to write adequately by rule. If you could just sit down with him on the other end of the piano stool, he’d be able to tell you in five minutes how you were getting it wrong. Because you can’t, the book can get a bit laborious and exercise-driven at times: when he says on page 15 that ‘no book like this would be complete without a mnemonic’ I did consider giving up the whole thing. But you can press through those sections if you enjoy Collins’ witty, donnish writing style: paragraphs that start with ‘If I were more prone to cliché …’ make me smile rather than wince; this may not be true for everyone.

Collins’ chief insight is that ‘lots of people worry, reasonably enough, about the performance aspect of giving a speech. But they do not worry about writing the speech in the first place’. He argues that ‘confidence will flow from clarity’: you will perform well if you know, exactly, what you want to argue. That does mean that delivery gets a deliberately light treatment (Max Atkinson’s ‘Our Masters’ Voices’ is a good a companion volume that offers the opposite if you want it). But in making that sacrifice, he forces the reader to confront the fact that there are no tricks that can turn a speech that isn’t worth reading into a speech that is worth listening to.

Beneath the teacherly run-through of various techniques to bring out your central argument is something that makes this book worth reading even if you never intend to give or write a speech. The real force in this book is a part-submerged rage – moral as well as aesthetic – at the way actual argument is substituted for righteous banality and insult in politics. Collins contends that you can’t make a good speech if you never say anything that a reasonable person could disagree with. While he covers this in technique, he can’t hide his love for those with ‘the courage to make a tough argument’ and his contempt for ‘saying nothing loftily’ and any speech that ‘panders to the already-existing prejudice of an audience’.

We have all got good at writing in a way that won’t generate headlines or be quoted back at us – a legacy, perhaps, of the deeply encoded 2005-2010 parliament. Political speeches from any of the three main parties often sound just like Donat’s one quoted above: who doesn’t want a ‘sporting chance’ or a ‘square deal’? He could have put ‘jobs and growth’ or ‘fiscal responsibility’ in without a problem. But unless you actually say something that people can reasonably object to, you might as well just go on the stage and shout ‘Labour’s great and everyone’s who’s a Tory is rubbish’. You can’t argue with your opponents – and perhaps win some of them over – you can only dismiss them. This is where Collins is at his finest, showing why this approach won’t work and implying why it shouldn’t:

‘… a persuasive argument needs to take its opponent seriously. If you caricature the opposing view you will not be able to mount a credible attack. You will be knocking over an attitude that nobody has … Actually, if you think the opposing view really is that rubbish, then surely nobody will be fooled by something so evidently ridiculous? The fact that you think it is worth demolishing such an obvious buffoon implies that you think     I, the member of the audience, might actually fall for this person’s tomfoolery. In which case, you are patronising me and implicitly suggesting that I, your listener, am pretty stupid.’

Collins thinks that such bad speeches will ‘usually be exposed’ and that politics without proper arguments ‘leaves people dissatisfied even as they concede that what you said was essentially right’. The 39 Steps had such a rhetorically just universe: Donat’s barrage of platitudes get the audience so excitable they rise up to shake his hand, block his escape and put him in the hands of his enemies.  But how many in each political party, on blogs or in the comment section of the newspaper will resist the instant applause that can be won while never confronting your friends with a real argument? How many will drop out of the shouting competition and have a go at actually persuading their opponents? Hopefully, a few more after reading this book.


Steve Van Riel is head of research at Centreground Political Communications and was the Labour party’s director of policy and research at the last election. He tweets @steve_vr


The Art of Speeches and Presentations: The Secrets of Making People Remember What You Say by Philip Collins is published by Wiley

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Steve Van Riel

was the Labour party's director of policy and research at the 2010 general election

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