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Rude hand gestures

Thea Euryphaessa, trained speaker, assesses Gordon Brown’s speech in Manchester Central

Written by . Published on September 24th 2008.


Rude hand gestures

Oratory. Public speaking. It’s an art form. A gift.

Last week Nick Clegg, leader of the Liberal Democrats, ambled his way about the stage while delivering his party conference speech. He seemed lost and bewildered, so did his audience.

On Tuesday, Gordon Brown laboured through his speech in an attempt to rally his party and the nation. Some critics liked it, along the lines of a brave new beginning for the PM. Others didn’t, seeing the speech as content-lite. But what about how he said it, what about his body language?

The inability of many politicians to conduct themselves in a manner that fits with their alleged beliefs and desires for the country is odd. Are they aware of how their body language undermines them? Do they not realise that despite the best laid rhetoric, spin and soundbites, people make snap decisions based on what they see as much as what they hear?

Gordon is a classic case in point. So I watched closely as he launched into his hour long diatribe. I spent sections watching with the volume muted as I followed his mannerisms.

I didn't necessarily want to see a new improved Gordon Brown trying to do a Barack Obama: there's nothing more embarrassing than British politicians attempting to copy their American counterparts, especially Mr Obama. Sarah Brown's introduction, although competently delivered just smacked of a cheap attempt at headline grabbing.

Rather, I was looking to be quietly inspired and for a modicum of congruity: that what he was doing married up with what he was saying. But alas, for the most part it didn't. Often awkward and unwieldy, here is a man who holds a small portfolio of gestures close to his chest. Literally.

For example, take the double hand barrier he often employs to emphasise a point, reinforced by additionally placing his thumbs up. I'm not sure if he's aware of how detrimental and alienating the effect can be on the casual observer. On the one hand it shows he's self-confident. Good. One would hope so of the Prime Minister. On the other hand it can be perceived as a superior attitude: think of police officers with their hands tucked behind their shield vests but with both thumbs protruding up. Stand-offish, dismissive we think to ourselves. I would've preferred to have seen a little more of his open palms. After all, he told us it wasn't about him, but about us. Well show us, I thought, invite us in and stop erecting a physical barrier.

There was also an inability to stay with comments that offered him the opportunity to connect and build rapport with the electorate. Give us the chance to stay with the statement, I thought, and stop looking so bloody shifty. Too often, he closed his eyes at the end of a statement and worse, physically withdrew taking the point he'd just made straight back off the table. The closing of the eyes for an exaggerated length of time is saying to us, the audience, that he wished we’d go away. The step back comes across as though he'd had the last word and that was that. At one point he mentioned his philosophy, but physically withdrew it with his hands before he drew his very next breath.

He also seems to be afraid of the power of the pause: that moment when, after a subtle combination of varying rhythm, intonation and stress...pause, to provide the audience a moment to digest, assimilate and reflect on the message. If you don't believe Britain is broken, don't shirk it off a second later with a rather sorry looking shoulder shrug. In all our interactions whether one-on-one or one-on-one hundred, the audience appreciates being given the opportunity to think.

Then there's his sudden slack jaw: an unfortunate mannerism that reminds me of a mocking action we'd do as primary school children when we didn't believe one another and so would stick our tongues firmly and exaggeratedly into our lower cheeks. Mr Brown's is a more subtle version, but equally irritating. It was particularly amusing to watch him do this as he said, fairness is in our DNA: a statement which he seemed uncomfortable making. Does he really believe that himself, I thought?

It wasn't all bad: he displayed a distinct lack of belligerent index finger pointing, preferring to employ the more goal-oriented fingertip-thumb press. And at least he didn't go meandering all about the stage like Nick Clegg. But overall he lumbered and laboured over his buzz words like broken records, vowing to fight on and ensure fairness: words that were lost under an extended fuzz of unbroken white noise.

Immediately after the speech the BBC asked Iain Duncan-Smith and Roy Hattersley for their feedback. What struck me was how much more in sync Iain Duncan-Smith's body language was with his opinions: more open and flowing, it didn't seem to jar and offered a greater degree of credibility and gravitas to his comments. Most unexpected. And as for you David Miliband, that perma-smirk doesn't become you. Exposing teeth alone does not a smile make.

You are left wondering who monitors the politicians and their speechifying. Surely the basic faults in Gordon Brown’s talk technique could easily be ironed out.

Round the corner from Manchester Central is the Radisson Edwardian Hotel, which was the Free Trade Hall. Speakers there have included Winston Churchill and, the Manchester born, David Lloyd George – both Prime Ministers in their time. This pair knew exactly the power of oratory, understood that the ability to hold an audience should be part of the armoury of every great leader. Gordon Brown keeps asking us to love him for the content of what he says, not on how he says it or his appearance. In this he fails to understand key elements of leadership, in this he makes a case for the prosecution.

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Jackie HoltSeptember 24th 2008.

I'm sorry but as soon as Gordon speaks my brain just goes to sleep...and his funny jaw is hilarious! Bring back Tony!!

AmbroseSeptember 24th 2008.

Hand waving or not, the whole conference was mearly about the fear of job losses. Not the man in the streets job, but the poiticians. I am sad enough to have so much time on my hands I could watch most of the conference. I have friends in The Middle East and they are just getting used to "democracy" and have asked me how we manage to have a Prime Minister that Joe Public hasn't voted in.Another friend in the Gaza area has asked me how democracy works. He wanted to know why, when they voted Hamas to rule their country, under the democracy rules of GB,and the USA, Bush, backed up by Blair hinted that they would not recognise the party that had been voted in and would not have any dealings with Hamas.Makes you think doesn't it?

Neville NevilleSeptember 24th 2008.

It is commonly accepted that 60% of the impact of what you say is actually your body language, 30% is HOW you say it (intonation, stress, pauses etc) and only 10% is what you actually say (the words that you use). I recently offended a successful barrister who was convinced it was what you say, then how, then body language. It makes me wonder how barristers and politicians can be so successful when such a significant part of their job is public speaking and so many of them are crap at it. In terms of politicians I guess it highlights the importance of naked ambition, ruthless desire and the ability to conduct high-level skullduggery. Ironically the time when public speaking becomes really inportant is when the heady heights have been reached and you would have thought that someone would have the nous to put the likes of Gordon in a room for two days with a video camera and get him to sort out at least the basics.

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