First, our usual reminder that we work with politicians from different parties, nationally and internationally, so this piece is about the craft and delivery of the speech, not the politics.
Because of the steady release of information over the last few weeks, the nominal function of the speech – to introduce the key points in the Labour manifesto – was almost irrelevant. Instead, Miliband used the speech to turn his supposed weaknesses into strengths. Many journalists and analysts gave his performance a positive review, particularly when comparing the feel of the speech to that of his most recent party conference speech. So how was this achieved?
If you watched both the conference speech and the manifesto speech on mute, then you would notice a few immediate differences.
- Podium: while the conference amble created the intimacy of a discussion, the podium suggests a more defiant presentation of ideas. Miliband leans on the podium in the same way that Cameron uses the dispatch box, which has the effect of making him seem both at ease and in charge.
- Hands: he articulates the key points with his hands, but doesn’t over-do it as he did in the seven-way debate. In his conference speeches, he tends to place the tips of his fingers together at chest height, looking less like a politician and more like a monk.
This is Miliband’s most confident delivery of a speech so far. When we train people to speak in public, one of the key areas we focus on is how to convey confidence, and this speech is a good example of many of the tricks.
- Tone: he exaggerates each tone very slightly, so the anger is more indignant, the mockery more caustic (‘Calamity Clegg’ makes a Miliband-Clegg coalition seem even less likely than it did before) and the defiance more certain. This also leads the audience – tone controls the emotional nuances of the speech, meaning you can tell when applause is coming.
- Contrast: the changes of tone are more pronounced than they were in the conference speech, which in turn makes the structure more effective.
- Sentence length: the sentences are much more punchy, which helps him to make the Labour plan seem simple and direct whilst making the whole speech easier to follow.
- Eyes: after a lot of criticism following the debate, this was a much better example of how to single out individual people in the crowd to make the whole audience feel as if we were being addressed directly.
This was perhaps the strongest element of this speech. Getting the right structure in place is often the foundation for a great speech, and the framework put in place by Miliband’s team made a big difference.
- Length: at 24 minutes it’s relatively short – certainly when compared to his conference speech. But could it have been even more effective if it had been cut again by half?
- Sections: the introduction and list of key policies are fairly standard, but the speech really comes into its own when Miliband returns to his three Labour predecessors. Then there’s a clever switch to his own period in opposition (‘I have been tested’), which leads neatly into a closing vow.
- There is a careful balance of the positive (proposed policies) and the negative (policies to repeal).
While the overall tone is confident, the rhetoric to deliver this is remarkably understated.
- Questions: it’s very easy to use too many questions in a political speech, so it’s worth noting that the main questions come half way through this speech, and all address the reasons why Miliband might be stronger than Cameron in Downing Street.
- Repetition: it’s significant that one of his only repetitions is ‘I am ready. Ready to put an end […] Ready to put into practice […]’ (this is light rhetoric; anaphora in its most simple form).
- Balance: in a reversal from his conference speech, the key balance in the manifesto launch is between the fiscal prudence of Labour and the reckless promises of the Conservative party. This is a bold move which looks to revers the usual perceptions of the two parties.
- Audience: ‘you, your family and our country’ is an effective way of asserting patriotism while putting the emphasis on the domestic realm. Note that the speech is clearly aimed at voters with children, rather than pensioners or young people.
All told, this was a strong speech. But there were still areas for improvement.
- Clichés: Politicians often reach for the “every man” feel, but the phrases they go for to do this often don’t hit home. The lines about “the rich [having] the broadest shoulders” and the current government writing “an IOU to the NHS” therefore miss the mark.
- Common address: Miliband still refers to his audience as ‘friends’, which is slightly too cosy and therefore feels insincere.
- ‘Better’: Although this refers back to his recurrent phrase from the conference speech, ‘better’ is not a fantastic word for a party slogan, and not nearly as strong as the Tory use of ‘secure’.
Ed Miliband: Overall
This was a great example of how to confound expectations. A weak conference speech was turned into an advantage, and with a few tricks of the trade (and a great structure to build from) Miliband has put in his best performance to date.