We need to talk about Keir Starmer's voice
Why vocalisation is the most underrated success factor in politics, business, and life
Those of you who follow British politics (which I realise isn’t all of you, but stick around because the lessons here are universal) will have been transfixed by Tory in-fighting this week. The upshot of which has been, well not a whole lot really. The Prime Minister is staying where he is, for now. His party will continue to sink into the mire; his government will continue to flail. At some point the Tories will face a general election, either with Johnson or without him; either way I expect voters to exact a terrible retribution.
At least, I think they will. I would be more confident of saying so if I were more confident in the Labour leader. Elections aren’t referenda on whether a leader or a party is good or bad; they are choices between competing options. It’s not yet clear that Keir Starmer is going to make the electorate’s choice as easy as it should be.
I am generally positive about Starmer. I think he is the best leader available to Labour. I hope he becomes Prime Minister. I’m almost pathetically grateful to him just for being a sane and credible Opposition leader, the first for over a decade who at least passes the bar of “seems like he could do the job”. He is a decent man who has had a career of genuine accomplishment outside politics. He’s assembled an effective shadow cabinet, and he leads in the polls. But the lack of genuine enthusiasm for him, even among his supporters, makes that lead seem awfully fragile.
Broadly speaking, there are couple of reasons for this. One is that he hasn’t yet set out a fresh and convincing vision for the country under a Labour government. The other is that whenever he opens his mouth, voters either wince or tune out. The first problem is much discussed among political commentators. It involves the serious, manly stuff of policy, governing, narrative. The second tends to be referred to only in passing, because it seems superficial and slightly frivolous. But in politics - in life, really - the superficial counts for more than we like to admit.
If you haven’t already, and if you can bear it, take a look at Starmer’s response, above, to the failed Tory rebellion against Johnson. This is about as open a goal as you can get, and he fluffs it. I will put aside the content of what he says and focus on presentation. This is, after all, how most voters process political content. It’s not that they’re uninterested in substance so much as they will only hear out politicians who get and keep their attention. Politicians compete against everything else in life for this commodity, and so much of life is more compelling than politics.
Starmer comes across as stiff, hesitant, and cramped, like he’s rigged up his lectern inside a portable toilet. His evident discomfort immediately makes us feel uncomfortable. His hand rises and drops as if jerked on a string from above. Worst of all: every few words, he peers down at his script. Why did he need to read a one-minute speech? He had days to prepare his statement, longer than politicians usually get to respond to big events. The point of memorising a script, as any actor or broadcaster will tell you, is that you can forget it. Once the words are ingested the ideas they express become part of you, which means you can focus your energies on making those ideas land in the minds of your audience. Spontaneity works much better with preparation.
Even if he and his team had prepared a decent visual presentation of the statement they would still have been left with the problem of Starmer’s voice: nasal, reedy, pinched. I’m not sure how many voters would explicitly mention it, but I am sure that for many of them his voice alone is a reason not to listen to him, and for some, a reason to dislike him. I realise this is quite a personal criticism, and it can verge on mean - another reason that commentators, sympathetic ones at least, don’t like to dwell on it. But the sound of a leader’s speaking voice is such an important factor in politics that it shouldn’t be avoided.
Note that I’m not talking about accent, here, but ‘vocalisation’ - pitch, tone, timbre, stress and rhythm. Vocalisation is one of the most important and most overlooked factors in whether or not a person succeeds in any field that requires persuasion of some kind.
Whenever you encounter someone, either in real life or over media of some kind, much of the way you feel about that person - and what they’re saying - is unconsciously determined by the sound of their speaking voice.
Below the fold: a wealth of fascinating evidence on the surprising importance of vocalisation, particularly for anyone whose job it is to inform and persuade - and what leaders like Starmer should do about it. I really do advise reading on because we’ve only just got started on this one…
Plus the usual juicy jamboree of links, including the most useful website I’ve ever linked to, for anyone whose work involves thinking.
Oh do please spread the word.