I haven't watched Bill Clinton's speech at the Democratic National Convention. I might or might not get around to it. But I have watched my Twitter feed and it's been awash with people who loved Clinton's speech and couldn't praise it enough. A subset of this group was the bunch of Australians, especially journalists, who saw it as a masterclass which Australian politicians would do well to learn from.

Which may well be true, but I think people got pretty carried away, particularly at the point where a good speech starts to be read as some sort of evidence about the political process. One message, I think from Latika Bourke, said words to the effect of "Julia and Tony take note - a good old-fashioned speech like Bill's beats a scare campaign any time".

But... does it? The actual politicians in the US don't seem to think so, because there's plenty of scare-campaigning - about Medicare, about debt, about Mitt Romney's background - going on. There is a lot more  attack advertising and rumour-spreading going on, in fact, than there are detailed speeches. That doesn't necessarily mean that big speeches are less effective, but it does suggest that everybody who should know about these things thinks they are less effective!

And that makes perfect sense. Lots of people watch ads and news-sized soundbites. Very few people watch fifty minute speeches. Lament that if you like, but just because we might want political discourse to be more detailed and lengthy doesn't mean that it's actually a good idea for any politician to move in that direction."I wish there were more speeches like this" is a good sentiment, and it aligns with "politicians should give speeches like this" in a normative sense - the world would be better if they did - but not with that same phrase in an advisory sense - politicians would do better if they did - but people conflate those. It's just not true that politicians are refusing to give long, great speeches that would solve all their communication problems and give them massive political advantage because they're stupid. They're refusing to give long, great speeches because it just wouldn't help much (or at least they don't think it would.)

Anyway, are Australian speech-givers really that bad? Partially a trick question: nobody watches enough of them to know! I hear that Julia Gillard's speech at the Labor conference last year was pretty terrible. But Malcolm Turnbull pops up quite frequently with speeches that people seem to like, and other people turn up less frequently with good speeches. It might well be true that none of them are quite as good as Bill Clinton, but can't we put that down to sample size and not to Australian politicians being uniquely terrible at oratory?

All this reminds me of a niggle which I've long had, namely that although we like to think of public speaking as one of the characteristics of politicians, it's not really very important a skill for them. Politics in general can be a mess at times because there's a mismatch between electoral skills, the ones you need to get and keep the job, and policy skills, the ones you need to do good things while you have it. But public speaking isn't even part of that mismatch - it doesn't really belong to either set.

(As a side note, is there any other occupation where the skills you need to get the job are so different from the ones you need to do it? I guess all jobs will have this to some extent because of the nature of interviews and so on, but those kinds of things seem to be much more incidental than in politics, where it's basically built into the structure of the occupation. Board members seems like the closest match off the top of my head.)

The majority of politicians are local representatives for whom being personable and having a well-organised team are the most important skills. You don't really need to give big, impressive speeches. It might help, but you could quite easily succeed in being elected without it, as the existence of a bunch of politicians suggests. Once you're elected as a local rep, climbing through the ranks - which might mean to being Majority Leader or something in the US, but can be all the way to the top in parliamentary systems like Australia or the UK - is going to be dependent on your relations with other members, which again doesn't demand much oratory prowess.

It's only the presidential position in a non-parliamentary system, and to some extent the role of Opposition Leader or PM going into an election, which really requires communication to large groups in order to sell some message or idea. That's where most of the eloquence and rhetorical skill does appear, but the fact is that you don't even need it there that much - George Bush was about as far from eloquent as you could get, and I find it hard to imagine anyone being roused to action by an inspirational speech from John Howard. In the kind of world we have, as I said above, far fewer people will listen to or watch a speech than absorb some other media. You don't need to be very good at making speeches.

Though I wish politicians were.


  1. This blog never updates. What a load of crap.

    1. I second this motion!


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