Executive Speaking Weblog

Communication – the future of business

Kevin Rudd Vs. Obama

Posted by Presentation Skills on January 23, 2008

There was a great article in the Sydney Morning Herald by Stephanie Peatling analysing the public speaking skills of the Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd with those of US Presidential Hopeful Barack Obama.  It’s a great article that highlights the different styles of speaking of recent Australian political leaders and compares them to Obama.  They are like chalk and cheese!

The full article can be found here.  I have also copied the full article below as I do not know for how long the link will work.

Obama offers hope for the art of speechmaking

Stephanie Peatling
January 21, 2008
Cast your mind back to election night. It’s not that long ago, not even two months. It’s hard, because to go there is to remember the speech Kevin Rudd gave as he claimed victory for the Labor Party after 11 grim years in Opposition.An occasion, one might think, for a rousing, stirring, passionate speech full of hope and optimism.Instead, there was a lengthy dissertation on the task ahead and a short, sharp reminder that even though the night was one for celebration it would be followed by an early morning of work – a none too subtle hint to staff not to let frivolity get in the way of a clear head.For months before that night Rudd had kept the media entertained with his frequent use of metaphors – the bridge too far, the fork in the road, the base camp of Everest. He is a far cry from the walking thesaurus that was Kim Beazley, a Labor leader who would never say “unquestioning underling” when “myrmidon” would do; would never use “wordy” when “prolix” could be dusted off; or “useless activity” when “boondoggle” was there for the taking.

A press gallery favourite was “termagant”, which Beazley once hurled at Tony Abbott, who no doubt scurried to check its meaning (“an imaginary Muslim deity portrayed as a violent and overbearing character in medieval mystery plays”) before responding.

But although Beazley tossed out words not used by the average person for several decades, it was done with delight and love for language. He would never have told journalists he did not want the gathering of federal, state and territory leaders known as the Council of Australian Governments “to become a sort of dead horse”.

“I want it to be a workhorse, not a dead horse. I don’t want to whip it. I just want to stroke it gently … Just lately the poetry’s lacking. But my intention is to meet it regularly and actually turn it into a real workhorse of the Federation,” Rudd said in one of his first press conferences as Prime Minister.

John Howard ushered in a new era of no-frills speaking and there is not yet much evidence to suggest the new Prime Minister wants to return to the sweeping verbal landscapes of Paul Keating. Rudd’s use of language so far is functional and administrative. In English, at least. In Mandarin he seems to get a far more appreciative response.

Rudd does have a staffer whose job includes speechwriting but not someone whose only job is speechwriting. Keating had the lyrical Don Watson as his speechwriter. Before him went Graham Freudenberg, the great Labor speechwriter who wrote Arthur Calwell’s 1965 censure of the Vietnam War, Gough Whitlam’s “It’s Time” speech of 1972 and also wrote for Bob Hawke, Neville Wran, Barrie Unsworth, Simon Crean, Bob Carr and Sir William Deane.

Freudenberg wrote in his elegant autobiography, A Figure Of Speech, that his retirement at the age of 70 allowed him to take a new interest in the role of political language and speeches. He attributed much of his interest to George Bush, whose presidency, he wrote, is “being defined by the speeches and the phrase-making of his speechwriters”.“The United States seemed to have become a rhetocracy, ruled by professional wordsmiths: ‘axis of evil’, ‘war on terror’ and ‘shock and awe’ are all speechwriters’ phrases … Despite my professional admiration for the craftsmanship of Bush’s speeches, the whole process seemed to me an absurd and dangerous separation of rhetoric and emotion from substance, argument and reason.”Freudenberg goes on to cite a 2004 essay by the philosopher Raimond Gaita, who speculated that the running down of political language was due to the fundamental cynicism among voters, who, instead of seeing the possibilities for good in politics, saw only the chances for personal gain and self-protection.

Maybe the language of Australian politics merely reflects the broader popular culture, with its Big Brother participants and Corey Worthingtons and seeming lack of room or desire for elegance and subtlety.

But maybe there is hope.

Thousands of Americans are responding to the speeches of Barack Obama, whose emotive use of language is propelling him towards the White House.

“Years from now, you’ll look back and you’ll say that this was the moment, this was the place where America remembered what it means to hope,” Obama told people gathered to hear him claim victory in the Iowa primary earlier this month.

“For many months, we’ve been teased, even derided, for talking about hope. But we always knew that hope is not blind optimism. It’s not ignoring the enormity of the task ahead or the roadblocks that stand in our path. It’s not sitting on the sidelines or shirking from a fight. Hope is that thing inside us that insists, despite all evidence to the contrary, that something better awaits us if we have the courage to reach for it, and to work for it, and to fight for it.”

If Americans can respond so enthusiastically to such flair there is no reason to doubt Australians would do the same.

All we need is for someone to start speaking.

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