Here’s how Ed can improve his speeches

Everyone has a view on how Ed is doing but there hasn't been much analysis of his actual speeches. There’s no question he can be a great speaker but...

Asher Dresner is an independent speechwriter; his MA was in Political Communications, with a dissertation on leaders’ party conference speeches over the last 30 years

Everyone has a view on how well Ed Miliband is doing so far. But I haven’t seen much analysis of his actual speeches. There’s no question he can be a great speaker; if you’ve seen the video of his speech at his old school you would know that. But he could be better. The speechwriting literature is full of insights which he could use.

For example, neuroscientists have shown that people make most of their political decisions based on their emotions. Brain scans show that when people make political choices, it’s the parts of the brain which regulate emotion which light up, not the rational part.

That means that to be good, a political speech has to have some emotional resonance. Ed’s speech earlier today at the Royal Festival Hall missed some good opportunities to do that.

In this post, I’ve just picked three ways he could have improved it: more pictures, fewer points, and a story structure.

1. More pictures

To get an emotional reaction, you need to explain things in terms of sensory information. I could talk about poverty by telling you that 2.6 million children lived below the poverty line in 2009. Or I could talk about the disgusting smell of urine in the lifts that the landlord won’t fix, or seeing your block blackened by fire damage, just because the housing association wouldn’t stump up for an alarm that actually works.

Ed missed some clear chances to ‘paint some pictures’.

Here’s what he said:

“Hundreds of millions of pounds, which should be being used for patient care, is being wasted on handing out redundancy notices to staff from primary care trusts who may well have to be re-hired.”

But he could have said this:

“Tomorrow, someone in Britain is going to be told that they have diabetes. They’re going to be told that the NHS can’t afford as many diabetic specialist nurses as it needs any more. And they are going to have a doctor look them in the eyes and tell them that the lack of diabetic specialist nurses means that the very worst case scenario – amputation – is more likely.

“And all this because this government would rather spend money firing staff than training diabetic specialist nurses. Staff who, by the way, will probably only have to be re-hired under the new system.

“I’m sorry, but that is wrong.”

2. Fewer points

In a recent book, two experts researched why some ideas stick with you, and others don’t.

Here’s a memorable snippet:

“A successful defence lawyer says; “If you argue ten points, even if each is a good point, when they get back to the jury room they won’t remember any.”

Ed’s Festival Hall speech made so many points, that it ran the risk of diverting the listeners’ focus from the main point of the speech.

Fixing this is pretty easy: he just has to focus down on one or two central ideas per speech. Even if that feels like he’s not saying enough, people will hear more.

3. Story structures

I think the central bit of the speech was about care homes. That’s an emotive subject for many people. But to tap into those feelings, you need to shape the comments into a story structure.

You could start by painting a picture of ordinary people who just wanted their mums and dads to be well cared-for in their homes. You then move on to say that that is what the care home company had traditionally provided: a good hot meal, someone there to help if grandpa had another fall, or if grandma was cold at night and needed someone to get another blanket.

You then describe how the company sold out to a private equity firm, which started gambling with the firm’s assets, and left the company where it is today: in trouble.

He might have said:

“And today, in 2011, in Britain, the sixth richest country in the world, ordinary grandmas and grandpas might have to be kicked out of the care homes in which they put their trust.”

Only then should Ed have introduced the points about how he was going to stand up for these people, how he was going to fight their corner.

By giving the event a story structure, you give it much more emotional resonance.

Many great politicians come to be defined by their speeches, and many of these speeches have been at party conference:

• “The lady’s not for turning”;

• “The white heat of technology”;

• “Fight, and fight, and fight again, to save the party we love”…

It’s also worth remembering that many came to be good speakers only through hours of practice, thanks to coaching, and with the help of good speechwriters. Chances are that at the coming party conference, one of Ed’s phrases will define him in the popular imagination for a generation. Let’s hope it’s a good one.

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