Wednesday, June 30, 2010

A great day for rhetoric

I don’t normally use this blog for opinion, but whatever your politics, the new Prime Minister should improve the rhetoric in Australia’s public life.

The tone of any enterprise comes from the top, and good government needs good language. Why? Because good expression takes clear thinking. If you are clear about what you say you must know what you’re doing. Speak up, speak well and people will follow you. The reverse is also true - don't speak well and somebody else may get your job.

The former PM's speaking record began to go south on Day 0, with his acceptance speech. As David Marr puts it – he claimed his victory and killed the party. Supporters wanted a rallying call, something to get behind. ‘Great days! Dawn of a new era!’ or at least Meryl-Streep-gets-an-Oscar... ‘Thank you thank you thank you!’ They were desperate to exult, but the joy just never came.

That night was prophetic. With Kevin Rudd there never would be a speech that sang, never a speech that even really held our attention. He spoke with no feeling. Never mind his policies, it was Kevin Rudd’s lecturing, his insipidity, his carefulness, the monotony of his voice and immobility of his expression that were the real turnoff. As a speaker, he was dull.

Rudd’s best effort was the apology to the stolen generations, and ironically, the speech he made announcing that he’d been ‘asked’ to hold a leadership ballot. On both occasions we sensed emotion. He was sorry, he was angry. We could relate.

Aristotle named 'Ethos, Pathos and Logos' as the three pillars of public speaking.
Modernize them and you have ‘credibility, connection and content’. In public life you need all three.

Kevin Rudd was short on ethos (credibility) because he lacked pathos (connection). As PM his credibility should have been assured, but his connection to us was false and this undermined him. Think of the pseudo-ocker sauce bottle, the ‘we’ve got to zip!’ exit line.…These remarks were inauthentic. They made us cringe. Rudd may have been long on content (logos) but that couldn’t save him because he didn’t rate well on the other two scales.

Contrast Rudd with Julia Gillard. Even in this honeymoon period her speechmaking has caused comment, not because of what she says but because of the voice she says it in. Her timbre is low and resonant, her pace is measured, her demeanour collected. It’s her accent some people are commenting on. True, it is not an accent we hear much in public life. True, her pronunciation of some vowels is pure Strine. But an accent is no indicator of the calibre of a person. It won’t undermine her, because Prime Minister Gillard is being herself.

Gillard is clear about what she stands for (ethos). Her ability to connect appears natural (pathos). People feel a real presence, she’s authentic. Aristotle said people are more likely to do what we want if they are well disposed towards us. Gillard’s Ethos and Pathos are a great head start for a public figure.

The 7.30 Report’s Kerry O’Brien had been challenging in his first night interview with her. He signed off saying ‘An historic day’, and she countered with ‘A great day for redheads’. He cracked up. It was funny because he has red hair too, deft because it deflected both the gender and the knife-in-the-back issue (implicit in his compliment), and smart because it showed she’s not afraid to have fun. In Aristotle’s terms she’d positioned herself perfectly. Everybody was feeling well disposed toward her.

For more on Aristotle see

Read a discussion of why language matters in government.

Watch Kerry laugh his red head off.

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