UK Politics

Why do politicians bother with noteless speeches?

David Cameron conference speech in 2005 Image copyright Getty Images

Ed Miliband has been criticised for forgetting parts of a speech he delivered without notes to the Labour conference. Why don't politicians stick to a script?

"David who?" It's funny to think that, nine years ago, most people would have asked this question when confronted with the name David Cameron.

But the young Conservative MP, who had only been in Parliament for four years, did something bold in 2005. He ran against the clear favourite, David Davis, for the party leadership.

At first few gave him a chance, but, at the annual conference, it all changed. While pundits rated Davis's address in Blackpool as steady-to-staid, shadow education secretary Cameron's received excellent reviews. Momentum achieved, he eventually won the contest.

What was the difference at the conference? Unlike Davis, Cameron spoke without notes.

At the time this just wasn't the done thing. Politicians tended to stand behind lecterns.

Image copyright PA
Image caption David Cameron has sometimes returned to old-fashioned paper notes

That didn't mean it was like the old days, when they had to keep staring down at their written notes. By 2005 there were transparent prompters and plasma screens, meaning they didn't have to lose eye contact with the audience when speaking.

But Cameron, the youngest contender in a five-man Tory leadership race, was freed to walk around the stage, combining his words with stronger body language, as if proclaiming: "I am young. I am strong. I am new."

It seemed to work. The speech is remembered as Cameron's breakthrough. Few, though, will recall the wording of his final rallying cry: "If we go for it, if we seize it, if we fight for it with every ounce of passion, vigour and energy from now until the next election, nothing, and no one, can stop us."

More will recall that one fact: he did it without notes.

'No excuses'

In the years since, this technique has become more widespread in UK politics. Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg's done it. Mr Cameron still fluctuates between it and using notes.

And, of course, Ed Miliband does it. He did it last year to some acclaim.

The 68-minute speech he gave at this week's Labour conference - his last before next year's general election - was also entirely free of aides-memoires. The problem was that he forgot to say a couple of planned passages that were still released to the media, on the sensitive issues of immigration and the budget deficit.

Chancellor George Osborne called the latter omission "extraordinary" and the press reaction has been unsympathetic.

Image copyright European Photopress Agency
Image caption Ed Miliband has had a roasting in the press over missing sections of his speech
Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Labour's Andy Burnham appeared keen to avoid a similar fate

"I suppose we should admire his wonkish cleverness in learning more than an hour's worth of meandering nonsense," writes the Daily Mail's Quentin Letts, "but when the country is about to go to the polls, might he not have been wiser to stand full-square behind a lectern and deliver grown-up proposals for our taxes and public services?"

On his subsequent tour of radio and TV studios, Mr Miliband has repeatedly had to admit he made a mistake and emphasise that cutting the deficit is one of his priorities.

"It's absolutely devastating if a CEO or a leader of a party misses out a crucial part of their speech," says Graham Davies, a partner on the public speaking training company Straight Talking. "There are absolutely no excuses. It's just arrogance. Trying to deliver a speech without notes is just a memory trick. It's a macho way of showing how good your memory is."

Mr Davies says that, particularly if a speech is long, the sheer feat of memorising its content can be draining and, contrary to the intention of making the deliverer appearing more vigorous, it can exhaust them, dulling their message.

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Image caption Microphones have come on a bit in the last 69 years

There is also the fear of forgetting and the need to remember the next section of text without any prompting, which means the speaker is not fully focused on the words they are currently saying, or on engaging with the audience.

"It's like driving a car without air bags," says Mr Davies. "Why would you do that? The whole point is to engage and this makes it more difficult. Cameron's did break the mould in 2005 but it hasn't worked for Miliband."

Yet the sight of a politician strolling energetically back and forth across a stage, in a style reminiscent of a stand-up comedian at the Hammersmith Apollo, is now a common one. Gordon Brown, who opposed Mr Cameron for several years as Labour prime minister, used the technique recently in his impassioned speech in favour of the Union ahead of the Scottish independence referendum.

Modern microphone technology enables the sort of movement that Winston Churchill and others could barely have imagined, physically emphasising the modern politician's notelessness.

It is commonly understood by broadcasters that over-scripting is a hazard if attempting to come across as engaging. But under-scripting is perhaps more risky, as it allows forgetfulness - and, at worst, an on-air mental meltdown.

Another voice coach, Max Atkinson, warns that disseminating the text of a "supposedly scriptless text-free speech" to the media was a mistake.

"If I were asked, my advice would be to say that there's little to be gained from trying to memorise long speeches," he writes on his blog, "unless you happen to be David Cameron performing in a 10-minute beauty parade for the Tory party leadership".

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