Alex Salmond got across two things in his keynote to conference in Inverness: that his party’s record in government showed there was nothing for Scots to worry about, and that he has a vision. He gave plenty of empirical evidence for the former and plenty of passion for the latter.
A keynote is an opportunity.
You are more likely to take that opportunity if you are a good speaker, though even good speakers can bomb. They bomb because they don’t speak to the purpose, don’t speak to the audience, or are all over the place with their content. Alex Salmond is undeniably an outstanding speaker. He loves it up there, whether debating in parliament or delivering to the troops at conference. In this speech his twin themes of “The Green Re-Industrialisation” and government for “The Common Weal” were spot-on as an analysis of what was needed for this occasion.
So, in delivery and structure, Salmond got this speech spot-on, to be sure. He is also confident, or conceited, enough to give it to the big beasts in Westminster with both barrels; he is no “big feartie” when it comes to using the harshest of adjectives. But I’d like to look at what he did here to connect with his audience, other than the right structure and effective delivery. It’s called making the emotional connection and it’s what makes him memorable. The best speakers use their oratory to touch as many of our senses as possible. There are a number of ways to do it: personalise your message; use metaphor and analogy; be humorous; quotation and reference.
Personalise your Message.
From the start Salmond mentions people on the stage with him, not just as formal introductions, but personal asides. He uses humour from the outset, a dangerous thing to do, but an illustration of someone right at the top of his game. This relaxes the audience by showing that he’s up for it, and looking forward to it. It is all going to be alright everyone, I’m in charge.
The use of the word “I” shows leadership, illustrates someone who takes responsibility and brings out a human side. There were serious, strategic personal references but also some self-mocking about his inability to use a computer.
“We” is another way to personalise your message, as in “we are all in this together”. This is an easy win in a conference hall with hundreds of dewy-eyed activists: the big challenge is to have those outside the auditorium think you are talking to them. Salmond devotes much of his efforts to convincing the “we” outside the room that his government is worthy of their trust: “The Common Weal”; “The rich to help the poor; the strong to help the weak; the powerful to help the powerless… We seek to make it better.” It’s worth noting too, the poetry of those lines in the cadence and in the power of three.
And of course his peroration, “Nae Limits”, is all about “we” and more specifically “you”. The third way to personalise your message is to appeal to the listener, some of whom as he readily attests, do not share his enthusiasms. Salmond’s peroration is, essentially, an appeal to the nation who are not sure, who bottled it last time, who need more convincing to take the final step. When he invokes Robert Kennedy, “The future is not a gift, it is an achievement” he is talking to the “we” who can persuade and cajole by knocking on doors and giving out leaflets but also the “you” who, in the privacy of the ballot box, make it happen.
Use Metaphor and Analogy.
All great orators use metaphor and analogy to engage the audience. If you are delivering a vision and seeking to change hearts and minds there is no better way than to take them to where you want them to be through your choice of words.
Right at the start we have a vision of Scotland at the forefront of the climate change agenda. There is a picture of an energy rich nation in the mix, and on the right side of the debate, when it comes to the future of the planet. His best use of analogy comes with “Nae Limits”, which starts with an aside about a small Scottish business of that name he saw on the drive to Inverness and how the Scottish pronunciation is so much better than the English, and takes us to an exhortation to push for independence. Along the way we get some romantic stuff about the nation, quotes from Charles Stewart Purnell and the aforementioned Robert Kennedy, an excoriation of Cameron and all things Westminster, a nod to the Founding Principles and a reminder of an eighty year struggle that has been far from easy.
That, folks, is how to use analogy to make a point.
Humour is easy to assess in a keynote: they either laugh or they don’t. And they did. From the personal asides about Nicola Sturgeon to the nice word-plays of which he is so fond, to the vicious barbs about those in Westminster, Salmond is as good as anyone around at using humour. In fact, you’d be hard pushed to find anyone who does it as well as Salmond.
There are personal asides about his own failings with technology, gentle musings on the era of “Jimmy Carter and Jimmy Saville”, and ridicule of his political enemies with “We achieved a majority in a system designed to prevent that very outcome… right enough it was designed by the Scottish Labour Party…”
Humour is dangerous, always. But it is always a terrific way of releasing energy in the room and getting people to like you. You have to choose your target, ensure it is relevant to your purpose and deliver with absolute certainty in both your material and technique. Timing is everything: and timing is really about pausing for long enough for the troops to get it.
Quotation, Statistics and Reference.
No fluff and stuff and nonsense, but hard facts and figures and relevant quotations and references with very specific purposes in your journey of persuasion: that’s what is needed and that’s what Salmond delivered. There are a number to note:
Firstly: The old ones are sometimes the best ones: oil. In summary, for 40 years Westminster has had control, let’s ensure that for the next 40 years the Scottish people have control. There’s a bit more to it than that in the speech, but not much. It’s simple and effective, because it is memorable.
Secondly: Edwin Morgan, Scottish poet, recently dead and Charles Stewart Parnell rate a mention. Morgan gets an emotional, personal tribute right at the outset and a thank you for his gift of funds, not just words, to the SNP. Parnell was a remarkable man and a remarkable nationalist, albeit an Irish one. This type of reference is effective because it shows that you know so much more than you are letting on in your half hour on your feet. This cause is your passion and your life. It also shows you know your history, and you are clever.
Of course, this is where Salmond has to watch that he does not come across as too clever by half, which can turn people off. But he delivers, mostly, like a man of the people and looks like a typical Scot who has eaten a few too many pies.
Thirdly: There are many facts, figures and statistics peppered throughout the speech. This reinforces the notion of economic competence that Salmond and his government have to portray, especially now he has his coveted majority. It’s not just over the black gold in the north sea we get numbers, but also in announcements about council tax, business taxes and apprenticeships of various hues. The facts and the figures and the assured delivery give it all a credence as we hear it. Is it all true? Who knows, but that is for the political commentators to dissect and debate.
Salmond’s strategy and vision here is to take him as far as possible from the rhetoric of Westminster: he is saying in all of this that he has something different to offer.
When Alex Salmond speaks, his audience is compelled to listen. When he delivers like this he is telling the story of a nation in the future. When the camera cuts to the crowd there are some who are literally mesmerised by the performance. That much is maybe obvious… he is in Inverness in front of his troops. But Salmond will have a similar effect on those who resist the nationalist message. He is a leader that many will be happy to have around, whether they vote for him or not, whether they like him or not. This is powerful stuff and is the SNP’s biggest strength and weakness; that’s as political as I get.
One thing is for sure; Alex Salmond considers that there are “Nae Limits”, and for him it’s “Nae Bother”.
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