A Timely Tale of Two Speeches

In my first post in since July I chose to take a “compare and contrast” look at the recent party leader speeches of two of the most important (and long standing) political leaders on these two islands: Scotland’s First Minister and SNP leader, Nicola Sturgeon MSP and An Taoiseach and Fianna Fáil leader, Micheal Martin, T.D.  

This is my first written political blogpost in several months. I certainly cannot blame the absence of political news or activity for the lengthy absence. If anything, the speed, and frequency of developments made writing new blogs impractical, as no sooner had I written some piece of considered political analysis than events had overtaken it.

There were other contributory facts, including a fairly mild dose of Covid that was followed by about two months of relatively minor breathing issues that still sapped my energy levels.

I did post a slightly hurried Mooney on Politics Podcast on the difficulties with the Fianna Fáil/SDLP partnership while I was in Brussels, but this is my first-time putting words on screen since July.

The temptation, therefore, is to review what has happened since, but I have resisted that temptation and chosen to: (a) return to a frequent theme, the leadership of Micheal Martin and (b) look at this through the lens of comparison.

The idea for this comparison suggested itself by the coincidence of both Fianna Fáil and the SNP having their first posy pandemic, in-person party conferences within a few days of each other.

Fianna Fáil, a party on which the SNP was once modelled, and a party from which the SNP used to take inspiration, held its 80ú Árd Fheis in the RDS at the beginning of October on Friday Sept 30th and Saturday Oct 1st.

While the SNP, a party that has now far eclipsed Fianna Fáil in terms of both popularity and organisation, held its 88th national conference in Aberdeen a week later from Oct 8-10th.

Rather than looking at the structure and organisation of each event, I opted as a speechwriter, to look at the two leader’s speeches, comparing and contrasting both in terms of form and style, content and messaging.

It is a fair comparison and one that could only be attempted this year as both party leaders were also addressing their conferences as Taoiseach/First Minister – in Micheál Martin’s case his first (and only) leader’s speech as Taoiseach and for Nicola Sturgeon her seventh, having become First Minister back in 2014.

I did this by comparing their officially published scripts: Taoiseach Micheál Martin’s and First Minister Nicola Sturgeon’s from their party websites and also comparing the versions as broadcast live on the day: Sturgeon (Youtube) and Martin (RTÉ Player).

What is clear from the outset is that both Martin and Sturgeon are accomplished and experienced speakers. Both come across as assured and authoritative.

They also enjoy the support and affection of the audience in their respective venues, though it is not unfair to point out that the SNP audience came across as more energetic, enthused, and responsive than its Fianna Fáil counterpart.

speech mechanics

The first point that struck me in both reading and watching the two speeches is the stark contrast in the mechanics of both.

Martin’s speech was the shorter of the two, by far – both in terms of word count and duration. This is due in large measure to the artificial – and I would say unfair – restrictions placed on it by RTÉ.

To be fair, the national broadcaster applies the same rules equally and fairly on all main party leader’s speeches, but requiring a major speech to fit into a 30-minute early Saturday evening primetime slot – which in reality means a 27 minute slot – imposes a burden on those charged with crafting a speech that cannot go beyond 26 minutes… though allowing for a several bursts of applause, that means writing a 24 minute script.

Sturgeon’s speech writers faced no such obstacle as the BBC carries party leader speeches live and in full, regardless of duration, though it can do this as the slot it offers is off peak – mid daytime afternoon and on BBC2.

speech statistics make the point

Though Martin spoke for around 24 minutes, he crammed in a text that was just over 3200 words in length (the full script was 3400, but I found some last-minute edits and cuts, which I will talk about later). This gave Martin an average word per minute speaking rate of 133.

That is high. Most speech writers would say it is way too high.

The result is a more rushed and hurried delivery that can also come across as less engaged, and even shouty. There were several places where you can see the Taoiseach attempt to cut short the audience applause so he can finish his race to complete the script before the TV cameras cut off.

This is no position in which to place any leader delivering such an important keynote speech. His communications team should have not allowed this.

They knew that they could not lengthen the time allowed to him – which was fixed by RTÉ, but they seemed unwilling to change the one part that was under their control, the length of the script.

In their defence, they may have written the text thinking they would have 26 minutes available to them. On the night, alas, that 26 minutes fast became 24 as Minister Norma Foley’s less than rousing introduction ate up just over two minutes of valuable TV airtime.

The blame for this does not lie with the Minister, but with whoever was managing proceedings. They could have easily cut her off by playing An Taoisaech’s walk on music. They chose not to… though why they thought the audience at home needed to hear the trite “cometh the hour, cometh the man” line, is beyond me. But even if the Taoiseach had these two extra minutes, his speaking rate would still have been up 124 words per minute.

By contrast, First Minister Sturgeon spoke for 55 minutes. Her script, as published was 5260 words long. This gave the First Minister an average word per minute rate of just 95. Consequently, her delivery was far less hurried or rushed than Martin’s. Her delivery came across as far more conversational in style and tone.

She had the time and scope to let the audience respond and react to her key messages. She had no need to cut the applause short – quite the contrary she could bask in it and demonstrate that she was a political leader, a Prime Minister, in tune with her party and enjoying its voluble and enthusiastic backing.

This more relaxed delivery was aided by her speech writers using shorter sentences. The average length of a sentence in her speech was ten words – compared to 17 for Martin. The longest sentence I could find in her speech was 30 words long… the longest in Martin’s was 55 words long.

This is important as long sentences are difficult enough to read and fully grasp when one is reading an article or book. Doing it when reading it off an autocue when addressing a large audience, in the room and at home on TV, only increases the potential for confusion and misunderstanding.

About 40 out of the 195 sentences in Martin’s script rated as very difficult to understand when screened through the Hemingway App. For Sturgeon the score was a lowly 9 out of 507 sentences. Her writers had ease of delivery as a clear goal.

It is to Martin’s immense credit as a speaker, especially given the timing and structural issues with his text, that he avoided any stumbles or errors in his delivery.

content and messaging

But enough of the mechanics – what about the content and messaging?

By looking at the messaging in both scripts we get a better insight into their two very contrasting leaderships. Both come across as experienced and competent. Both look like leaders, both sound like leaders, but only one conveys the messaging and vision of a leader looking forward. It is on this metric that Sturgeon’s script and delivery scores higher – much higher.

Where Martin’s speech had a sense of trying to hit every key issue micro button with a “one for everyone in the audience” approach – Sturgeon took the broad arch approach – charting a path to an Independent Scotland.

Where Martin offered a litany of past acts and government inputs, Sturgeon paints a broader canvas of the brighter more progressive and re-enforces that vision with clear calls to action.

Where Sturgeon, as the leader of the independence movement in Scotland saw her speech as a vital opportunity to chart her vision towards independence, Martin in his twin roles of (i) leader of Ireland’s historically preeminent republican party and (ii) the leader of the nation as Taoiseach saw his as a chance to set out his record on a range of issues as if delivering an annual report as COO of Ireland (26 counties) Inc.

Rather than setting out a future vision as Sturgeon chose, Martin went for policy detail and settled for a review of his own record as Taoiseach. That’s a valid strategy for a leader after their first full year in government, telling supporters and the public how you have delivered on your pre-election promise… but is it really the best strategy when your party is 10 pts lower in the polls than it was a year before the last general election and when this speech will be your only chance to address an Árd Fheis as Taoiseach?

Let me illustrate my despondency about Martin’s future with these two contrasting clips.

In these clips the two leaders address their party’s core aims and raison d’etre: Independence for Sturgeon, Unity, and Republicanism for Martin, you can see how less than enthused Martin is in pressing his case.

His language is fine, but whereas Sturgeon uses stories to create personal links to her passion for and commitment to independence, Martin is more distant, quasi-professorial – even múinteoir-y.

In terms of word count both clips are roughly equal in size, but as you will hear Sturgeon has the luxury of taking her time to let the excitement build.

Nicola Sturgeon Clip:

Micheál Martin Clip:

These are also available as video clips… at the end of this piece

At one point you hear Martin make a rare verbal gaffe or trip.

This is interesting for two reasons. It is rare. Though Martin has been racing through an overly complex and over wordy script, it is his first real slip-up.

The second reason is that this is where the speech as delivered differs from the official script published on the party website. This is the site of the biggest cut in the text. A cut that does Martin no credit.

Martin’s shameful last minute edit

These are the omitted lines:

…and so too is a major series of research studies to start properly understanding the differences, similarities, and opportunities in relation to health services, trade, childcare, education, and other vital areas between North and South.

That’s real action.

Central to our identity as a party is that we believe in the Republican vision set out in 1916 of a country which truly unites all the people of our island, which respects diversity, different identities and puts behind it the divisions of the past.

And we believe that it is the duty of every one of us to do the hard work of building understanding, unity and a sense of shared community.

That is our work.

These are the only lines in the original text where Martin lays claim to his party’s Republicanism. These lines are the closest thing in the original script to a call to action… but, because he is pressed for time, they are dropped.

It is astonishing.

Frankly, it is shameful.

So, where Sturgeon’s speech was political. Martin’s was mid-level managerial, civil servant-y.

The fact that An Taoiseach and his advisers thought that this was the speech that he needed to deliver tells me that his leadership is now running on empty.

The end of the Martin era is in sight.

This was the speech of a party leader on a speedy autocue and an even speedier auto-pilot as he looks around for personal opportunities elsewhere.

Martin and Co. are already heading toward the exit. They are heading that direction of their own volition.

This is not about heaves or spills.

Martin already knows his time as leader is coming to an end, the only outstanding question is timing and how it is managed. Will he depart at a moment that best suits him, in a year or so? Or, will it be at a time chosen by his parliamentary colleagues? A time that that gives his party its best chance of preparing for the potential political catastrophe of the next general election.

This is about timing… nothing else. Frankly, the Fianna Fáil parliamentary party has very little time left to it to address this question.

It must now set about that task with all the speed and haste of Micheál Martin reading his last ever Árd Fheis speech.




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