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Rhetorically speaking…
Speechwriters Blog on Speechwriting

A pitiful performance

One of the big questions speechwriters have to consider is what emotion they want to unleash in their audience, e.g. hope or fear, pride or shame, passion or anger. Usually, this is worked out by weighing up the audience’s emotions, the speaker’s character and the nature of the argument.

The answer is usually pretty obvious, e.g. a CEO speaking to staff would play to pride, a militant campaigner speaking on Iraq would play to anger and politicians usually base their appeals on one of four emotions: hope (Obama’s ‘new dawn’), fear (Blair’s ‘45 minutes’), shame (Cameron’s ‘Broken Britain’) or patriotism (Thatcher’s ‘Britain awake!’).

I’m therefore surprised that Gordon Brown seems to have made a big plunge into pity. I simply cannot remember a single political leader, victor or not, who has launched such an appeal in history.

My first reaction on watching last night’s Morgan interview was that this could be a game-changer. But that was an emotional response - it was hard not to be moved. But, on more rational reflection, I actually think it’s bound to backfire.

A. The British people don’t do pity. The stiff upper lip is our single most defining national characteristic. Rather than feeling sorry for the pitiful, we tend to want to kick them when they’re down. The only two public figures I can remember who have made appeals to pity in recent years were (i) Cherie Booth over the Aussie con-man and (ii) Princess Diana, junking in her charity work to spend more time at the gym. Both went disastrously wrong and unleashed the last emotion either expected: namely, anger.

B. No-one wants to be led by someone pitiful. Some will have urged Brown to show his human side. But he should have kept it hidden. The truth is we actually want our leaders to be super-human, and always have - from Alexander the Great to Julius Caesar from Mandela to Obama. Murray Edelman wrote about this in his fab book ‘Creating the Political Spectacle’. As soon as we discover our politicans are frail and human like the rest of us, it tends to be game over.

C.  For many people, this will reinforce their view that Brown does not have the strength of character for PM.

Will the British people feel sorry for him? Probably, yes. Will it make us more likely to vote for him? Probably not.

Posted by Simon Lancaster on February 15th, 2010 :: Filed under Random
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2 Responses to “A pitiful performance”

  1. Scott Mason
    March 9th, 2010

    Emotion can play a massive part in persuading an audience, but it certainly requires perfect judgement and spot-on timing to maximise its effectiveness.

    Many people are influenced by emotion, to varying degrees, whether they like it or not. The level to which they are influenced, though, must depend on their consciousness of it. In GB’s case here, I think many people had the perception that he was intentionally playing the pity card, to almost force them into feeling sorry for him.

    This might’ve worked for some, but obviously not all. There is no universal audience and a speaker (or a speechwriter for that matter!) can never assume that there is. There are many different opinions out there, so the main, and probably most difficult, task is marrying the emotion with the moment, in order to please (or persuade) as many people as possible.

    Nice blog, by the way, I enjoy reading your posts!

  2. Simon Lancaster
    March 10th, 2010

    Hi Scott

    You’re absolutely right - there’s no universal audience. Nor is there any universal speaker or universal issue. Every speech is a unique congregation of speaker, audience and issue and the speechwriter needs to carefully weigh up the merits of each before recommending any particular approach.

    This is where so many speechwriting manuals go wrong. They offer sweeping suggestions, most of which turn out to be arbitrary, baseless and wrong on further examination.

    The other day, someone on one of my courses said that they had been told that you should always start a speech with a joke. I was appalled! This kind of advice could be a sure-fire route to disaster. Why?

    a) because not everyone can tell a joke
    b) because audiences often expect something a bit more substantial at the beginning of a speech.
    c) because jokes would go down like a lead balloon eg a war rally, an industrial dispute or a funeral.

    There are two schools of speechwriting. The Bob Monkhouse school and the Aristotle Academy. I’m guessing Bob Monkhouse’s Speakers Handbook is not on the reading list for the MA Rhetoric course…


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