David Cameron: A Speaker in His Prime

David Cameron: A Speaker in His Prime

How a single speech propelled one man
to the top of British politics. 

By William H. Stevenson, III

On a sunny spring day in 2010, David Cameron stood behind a lectern in the garden of 10 Downing Street in London, England, and addressed a crowd of reporters. The weather reflected his upbeat mood as he held his first press conference as prime minister of Great Britain. At age 43, he’s the youngest to serve in that position in 200 years.

Public speaking plays an important role in any politician’s success, but in Cameron’s case it was particularly striking. Five years before he became prime minister, he made a speech that catapulted him from a little-known Member of Parliament (MP) to the leadership of his party, putting him well on the pathway toward leadership of his country. In many ways this was the speech that made him prime minister.

In his early political career, Cameron struggled, and part of the problem was his oratory. Despite a gift for finding a well-turned phrase, Cameron could appear wooden when speaking to a crowd. His delivery lacked spontaneity and life.

Cameron knew he needed to improve his speechmaking if he hoped to advance in politics. One way he honed his skill was to participate in the weekly parliamentary ritual known as the Prime Minister’s Questions. As British Toastmaster Freddie Daniells, of the Excalibur and Holborn Speakers clubs explains: “The prime minister of the day has to answer questions put to him by the leader of the opposing parties and other MPs. Needless to say, this can turn into a session of political points scoring. [Former Prime Minister] Tony Blair was judged as being very good at this. However, David Cameron was often judged to have gotten the better of Blair and was seen as very strong against Blair’s successor, Gordon Brown.”

In the fall of 2005, Cameron made a bid for the leadership of the Conservative Party, which that year had once again suffered defeat at the polls. The showcase event of the leadership campaign was the party conference where each candidate would deliver a 20-minute speech. Cameron made a bold decision: He would give a speech equal parts persuasive and inspirational, outlining a radical plan for the future of his party. Although not a leading contender, he did not appear nervous or intimidated when he took the stage. Speaking without notes, Cameron began by complimenting the master of ceremonies:

“Sayeeda, I have to say that was a magnificent opening speech. [Applause.] When Michael Howard first met you he came back and said to me, ‘When that woman gets into Parliament, she’ll wipe the floor with the rest of you.’ [Laughter.] And that may be true but we need you there.”

Texts of Cameron’s speech usually omit his opening remarks, evidently deeming them insignificant. In fact, these first few minutes are a crucial part of the speech. Speakers who seek to persuade must gain the goodwill of their audiences; if they fail to do this, nothing they say will have much effect. In his opening sentences, Cameron combines a compliment, a bit of self-deprecating humor and a subtle appeal to the women voters. He then praises the former party leaders, pouring balm on the wounds inflicted by a series of bruising electoral losses: “Being Leader of the Opposition is one of the most difficult jobs in government. And this party owes a huge debt of gratitude to the three people who have given it their all and worked their hearts out over the last eight years.”

Becoming increasingly animated, Cameron named each leader, mentioned something the leader did for the party and thanked them, prompting fresh applause. He ended his introductory remarks with a touch of humor that not only made his listeners feel good about themselves but also sounded the theme of being open to new ideas: “If there is out there an 82-year-old, or a 42-year-old, or a 22-year-old, who at any stage of this speech wants to shout nonsense, you just go for it. [Laughter.] Because, I’ll tell you something about this party; we’re not frightened of debate, we don’t mind having an argument, and we believe in free speech. [Applause; comments of “hear, hear!”] But I would be grateful if you wouldn’t shout nonsense the whole way through.” [Laughter.]

British communications researcher and speech coach Max Atkinson identifies several of Cameron’s strengths on display in this opening section. “He has a good command of all the main rhetorical techniques that trigger applause,” remarks Atkinson. “And the ability to speak without using scripts or an Autocue. He seems to be more comfortable using humor than most contemporary British politicians.”

Pleasantries over, Cameron launches into the main body of his speech, starting with a somber description of his party’s plight. “We meet in the shadow of a third consecutive election defeat, defeated by a government that has complicated the tax system, dumbed down the education system, demoralized the health system and bankrupted the pension system...And still we were defeated.” Cameron does not evade the situation – he confronts it, repeatedly using the word “defeat” to hammer home the point. Cameron wants to make sure everyone understands the gravity of the present situation so they will be receptive to his plan for the future.

But he doesn’t dwell long in the shadows, moving quickly to the light with an upbeat assessment of his party, speaking in the first person for maximum effect. “I joined this party because I love my country...This is the only party that understands, and is proud of, what we have been and who we are.”

Should they stand idly by and hope the other party self-destructs? “I think that’s a pathetic way for a great party to behave,” says Cameron. “I don't want to hang around and wait till something turns up. Do you?” Should they move the party to the right? “I say that will turn us into a fringe party, never able to challenge for government again,” declares Cameron. “I don't want to let that happen to this party. Do you?” At the end of each question the audience chimes in with an increasingly voluminous “No!” Rhetorical questions are one of the most effective tools in oratory. “If you say something that gets an audience wondering or anticipating what’s coming next,” Atkinson explains, “you’re likely to increase their attentiveness and involvement.” Cameron is a master of this technique.

Having gotten his listeners to agree on what they should not do, Cameron then tells them what he thinks they should do. “We have to change and modernize our culture and attitudes and identity,” he states.

Throughout his speech, Cameron not only speaks but acts with passion and energy, walking back and forth on the stage, gesturing, making eye contact, engaging his audience. Building to a climax, he ends his speech with stirring rhetoric: “So let's build together a new generation of Conservatives...Let the message go out from this conference: A modern, compassionate conservatism is right for our times, right for our party and right for our country... If we fight for it with every ounce of passion, vigor and energy from now until the next election, nothing, and no one, can stop us.”

Cameron received a standing ovation that lasted for three minutes, and he was immediately hailed as the man of the hour. When the Conservative Party members voted for a new leader, they chose Cameron by more than a 2-to-1 margin.

Toastmasters in London express different opinions of the speech. Freddie Daniells considers it one of Cameron’s finest. “The best speakers are those that make you feel like they are having a personal conversation with you despite there being hundreds in the audience,” says Daniells. “I believe that his early speeches [like this 2005 one] were excellent examples of this.”

Jessica Bass of the London Athenians club was not impressed with the speech but admires Cameron’s use of language. “Despite his [distinguished] education,” she says, “he prefers to follow George Orwell's advice: ‘Never use a long word where a short one will do.’” James McGinty, a member of the Chelmsford Speakers club, thought Cameron’s gestures could have been improved but that he did nearly everything else right. “There was very clever use of repetition and rhythmic couplets,” he says. “He does make good use of his voice and uses the pause extremely well.”

Furthermore, adds McGinty, “He absolutely oozes sincerity. If the audience feels that you believe in your own message, they are going to be more inclined to believe it.”

Four years would pass and another hard election campaign would be waged before David Cameron received the call to lead his nation. But his speech at the 2005 Conservative Convention might justly be regarded as the speech that made him prime minister.

Cameron’s Conservative Conference speech may be viewed at: http://bbc.in/aRUVCP

William H. Stevenson, III, is a freelance writer in Huntsville, Alabama. He has been a member of three Toastmasters clubs in the Huntsville area. Contact him at whsteve3@aol.com.