On Monday, Labour Party members received an e-mail from Liz Kendall in their inboxes: an open letter.
You probably think I’m writing to ask you for your vote in the upcoming election for party leader.
And I am.
But what really matters for our country and our party is another election – the one we’ll fight together in 2020.
By then, our country will have suffered under five more years of the Tories.
&cetera. I was a little underwhelmed by the text, to be honest. The values she lays out do not seem to delineate Kendall from other candidates, or even the other parties. “End inequalities” and “eliminate low pay” are policies that Labour surely shares with the Greens, the Liberal Democrats, Plaid Cymru and the SNP. Conservative Party Leadership Candidates probably would not put these issues at the top of an appeal to their members, but it would be difficult to find a Tory MP that disagrees with either. However, “we need a more caring society”, “We must share power with people” and “We need a future of hope for all our young people” are phrases that would make their way onto a Conservative membership e-mail. Only once in the e-mail does Kendall explain a policy difference between her and anyone else (on inheritance tax). So the aspirations and goals, worthy though they are, seem rote when stated by themselves.
But there was something about the style, the cadence, the literary gait of the text that I found jarring. It did not take me long to realise what was wrong: the open letter is not ‘letter’ at all, but a speech. Two word paragraphs. Single sentence paragraphs. These are the tools of the speech writer, of someone writing to be heard, not read.
Sure enough, there is a campaign video. And it sounds so much better than it reads.
Its the same words as the open letter, but they don’t sound nearly so empty and platitudinous as the read. That is partly because we don’t notice the lack of detail in a speech. But I think it is also because Liz Kendall does have a passion for what she is saying, and that comes through in her delivery.
So our first lesson is that campaigners need to remember, and write for, their chosen medium. Speeches do not always translate to text, and vice versa. Now I think of it, this lesson extends to social media, too. Phrases that test well on PMQs don’t always work when repeated on Twitter. It also extends to political debates, where the stock phrases and pre-prepared remarks that bookend such events always seem frustratingly false when compared to the unscripted backs-and-forths.
There is also a second lesson in the Liz Kendall video. Although I like the delivery of the spoken words, and the cinematography is impeccably shot, the video is nevertheless… a bit weird. Most Internet comments have asked why Liz is nodding at the screen and smiling as she writes! The boring, non-banter, non-witty answer is, of course, that she is acting. Its a heightened representation of a scene and its chief purpose it to provide some moving images to go with the audio, because YouTube is a bigger platform than audio sharing sites like SoundCloud.
And therein lies the problem. Why bother stage such a video? Why put her in a cold room? Why not just film exactly the same speech for real? She must have given many versions of it during the course of her campaign.
I think this is one reason why Jeremy Corbyn is being portrayed as genuine and Liz Kendall (and also Yvette Cooper and Andy Burham) are held up a shallow, when in fact they are all human beings of equal depth, complexity and kindness. Almost every video I’ve seen of Corbyn has him in a room (or on a bus) spouting oratory at supporters. If you wrote down what he said it would be no more substantial than Kendall’s speech. But because the words are punctuated by applause, they take on a veneer of authenticity.
My advice to all political campaigners is therefore to produce videos that show your candidate speaking to supporters. They will look genuine because it will be a genuine moment on the campaign and not something staged. The words—spoken, meant to be heard—will already be fit for purpose. The resulting clips will carry an energy that you would otherwise have to spend thousands of pounds trying in vain to recreate. And if you have a budget, I’d spend some of it on decent microphones. That way, you can capture the candidate’s voice properly and the audience noises separately, and their enthusiasm can be properly mixed into the final edit.