Web-only article: Leader speeches at the 2005 party political conferences

Peter Bull on oratory and the mistiming of applause.
Rhetorical techniques used by politicians to invite audience applause were the focus of intensive research by Max Atkinson (e.g., Atkinson, 1984). Just as conversationalists take it in turn to speak, so he argued do speakers and their audiences, although audience “turns” are essentially limited to gross displays of approval or disapproval (such as applauding, cheering or heckling). According to Atkinson, the timing of audience applause is closely synchronized with speech: typically it occurs either just before or immediately after a possible completion point by the speaker (such as the end of a clause or a sentence). The fact that audiences seem for the most part to applaud “on cue” suggested to Atkinson that there must be some system of signals which enables them to recognize where and when to applaud.

Rhetorical techniques used by politicians to invite audience applause were the focus of intensive research by Max Atkinson (e.g., Atkinson, 1984).    Just as conversationalists take it in turn to speak, so he argued do speakers and their audiences, although audience “turns” are essentially limited to gross displays of approval or disapproval (such as applauding, cheering or heckling).  According to Atkinson, the timing of audience applause is closely synchronized with speech: typically it occurs either just before or immediately after a possible completion point by the speaker (such as the end of a clause or a sentence).  The fact that audiences seem for the most part to applaud “on cue” suggested to Atkinson that there must be some system of signals which enables them to recognize where and when to applaud.

His critical insight was to propose that features in the construction of talk itself indicate to the audience when applause is appropriate.  One of the cues he identified is a list of three items.   So, for example, Tony Blair was duly applauded at Brighton when he said (27 September, 2005): “In the late 20th century the world had changed, the aspirations of people had changed; so we had to change.  (1) We did. (2)  We won.  (3)  And Britain is (1) stronger, (2) fairer, (3) better than on the 1st May 1997” (numerals inserted by the author).  Another comparable rhetorical device is the contrast.  Thus, Charles Kennedy was applauded at Blackpool when he said (22 September, 2005): “(A) And just as we Liberal Democrats opposed the flawed logic of that war in Iraq –– (B) we will oppose the flawed Government claim that we have to surrender our fundamental rights in order to improve our security” (letters A & B inserted by the author).

The synchronization of speech and applause

More systematic analysis of speech and applause suggests it is not quite so closely synchronized as Atkinson would have us believe.  In a study of six speeches delivered by the three leaders of the principal British political parties to their respective party conferences in 1996 and 1997, only a mean 61% of applause incidences were found to be fully synchronised with speech (Bull & Noordhuizen, 2000).  In the three speeches delivered by party leaders to the 2005 conferences, synchrony was rather higher (mean: 72%).

Lack of synchrony between speech and applause does not necessarily reflect well or badly on the speaker, it depends on the form the asynchrony takes.  A taxonomy of different forms of asynchrony  (referred to as “mismatches”) was devised by Bull and Noordhuizen (2000).  For example, if there is an discernible delay (say of over 1 second) between the speaker reaching a completion point and the start of the applause, this might suggest the audience are not very enthusiastic about what the speaker is saying, or failed to appreciate that applause was being invited at that point.  Conversely, if the audience start to applaud before the completion point is reached (interruptive applause), this might suggest greater enthusiasm for the point the speaker is making.  In the three speeches by the party leaders at the 2005 conferences, different forms of mismatch provide interesting insights into the performance of the three speakers and the audience reaction to them.  Each speech is discussed below:

Charles Kennedy (Blackpool, 22 September)

Charles Kennedy’s speech was the most lacking in synchrony: only 58% of applause incidences were synchronous with speech.  One reason for this is that Kennedy often continues talking after he has reached an obvious completion point, so the audience applause seems interruptive.  This is by far the most frequent reason for the lack of synchrony in his speech (64% of instances).  For example, Kennedy receives applause for the statement “After all the other arguments collapsed over Iraq, Tony Blair fell back into saying that it was essential to help establish democracy.  It would have been a damn sight more persuasive if he’d started in Britain first here at home that’s what I say”.  The audience applause starts after “....first here at home”; the phrase “.....that’s what I say” is in fact unnecessary.  Again, Kennedy states, “And that’s what I say to all those last May who held their noses but still went out and despite it all voted Labour don’t get fooled again don’t get fooled again”. The applause starts after the first time he says “....don’t get fooled again”; the repetition is totally unnecessary.  At the end of the speech, Kennedy says “It’s not just about me, and it’s not just about you, it’s about our country, it’s about Britain, it’s about a Liberal Democrat Britain. That’s what it’s all about.”  The applause starts after “....Liberal Democrat Britain”; yet again, the phrase “That’s what it’s all about” is unnecessary.  By tacking on these rather lame little phrases, Kennedy gives the impression of lacking confidence, that he is less than sure that he is going to get the audience responses he seeks.

Tony Blair (Brighton, 27 September)

In Tony Blair’s speech, the applause is much closely synchronised (75% of applause incidences).  But whereas the mismatches in Kennedy’s speech occur predominantly because he continues speaking into the applause, in Blair’s speech, they occur primarily because the audience anticipate the completion point, and start applauding before Blair has reached it (88% of mismatches).  For example, when Blair said “And yes, as a result of the fighting, innocent people tragically die.  But 8_ million Iraqis showed which future they wanted when they came out and voted in January’s elections”, the applause actually starts on the word “voted”, thus anticipating the completion point “January’s elections”.  Again, when Blair said “It has taken many years, and a lot of hard work, but every minute of every hour of every all-night negotiation will have been worth it if it brings lasting peace to Northern Ireland”, the applause begins on the word “to....”, thus anticipating the completion point “....Northern Ireland”.  The impression this gives is one of enthusiastic support for Blair, the audience cannot wait for him to complete his sentence before voicing their approval.

Michael Howard (Blackpool, 6 October)

Of the three speeches, Michael Howard’s is the most closely synchronised (83% of applause incidences).  But unlike Blair’s speech, those few mismatches in Howard’s speech seem to occur not because of audience enthusiasm but simply because the audience has misread the signals; they applaud at what they mistakenly believe is a completion point.  So, for example, in the following excerpt, Howard pauses briefly after “such a shambles”, then opens his mouth to take in a breath to continue, but by then the applause has already started; it would appear that the audience (quite reasonably) perceive this phrase as a completion point:
And let's take the practical steps needed to defend those values. We're an island. We're the fourth richest nation in the world. So our Government has the means to secure our borders. It just lacks the competence. That's why our immigration system is in such a shambles.
But these kinds of misunderstanding are comparatively rare in Howard’s speech.  For the most part, the applause is closely synchronized with speech, and neither delayed nor interruptive.

Conclusions

The analysis of mismatches throws an interesting light on the three speeches.  Of the three party leaders, Charles Kennedy appears the least polished and confident.  He seems uncertain of his audience, continues speaking after his completion points, hence the very high degree of asynchrony in his speech.  As the leader of the minority Liberal Democrats, he does look like very much like the man in third place.  Michael Howard’s speech is competent, professional and well delivered, but does not seem to inspire any great enthusiasm.  This is perhaps not surprising, as the retiring leader of a party which had just suffered its third successive general election defeat.  It is Tony Blair who comes over very much as the man in charge.  Mismatches occur not because of poor delivery or lack of confidence, but primarily because the audience anticipate his completion points, and applaud enthusiastically before he reaches them.  Of the three speakers, Blair is by far the most effective: confident, competent and professional, he also inspires enthusiasm in his audience.  As an orator, Tony Blair appears still very much at the peak of his powers.

References

Atkinson, J.M. (1984).  Our Masters' Voices.  London and New York: Methuen
Bull, P.E. & Noordhuizen, M. (2000).  The mistiming of applause in political speeches .  Journal of Language and Social Psychology, 19, 275-294.

- Dr. Peter Bull is a Senior Lecturer in the Department of Psychology, University of York.  He is the author of The Microanalysis of Political Communication: Claptrap and Ambiguity (London: Routledge, 2003).  
For further details, see: http://drbull.nfshost.com.

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