To start this discussion I need to define what I think of as ‘statesmanlike’. Doesn’t it mean someone who has a certain gravitas, and bucket loads of presence? As I have written before, these are the people who are noticed when they walk into a room, are listened to when they speak, and their words and persona are remembered after they leave. When they speak they are articulate and succinct. If someone has all these qualities we will want to listen to them, sometimes we will be persuaded to their way of thinking, but even if we aren’t we will hear them out and give thought to what they are saying.
So does Mr Corbyn, the Leader of the Opposition in the UK parliament, have these qualities?
Let’s start with his words: he is certainly articulate and intelligent. We don’t get the impression he is just spouting ‘partyspeak’ and spinning at us. He is not talking at us in infuriating, repetitive soundbites; his words are natural, conversational, the same as we suspect he would use chatting to us over dinner or in the pub. He doesn’t use too many words, obfuscating his true meaning by over complicating the language or using jargon in order to… what? Sound more statesmanlike? I think we constantly hear politicians doing this, and how misguided I believe they are if they think it somehow increases their standing! By contrast, Mr Corbyn is succinct and clear in his message; he says what he thinks in a direct and uncomplicated way; he sounds like he is telling us his true thoughts and he speaks in a way that credits us with intelligence, which I like, obviously!
But is he statesmanlike? I’m not sure he is. Let’s look at some other elements and see how he fares.
His body language is not always strong. When he sits, in a media interview for example, he is a little slumped. The impression is that he is tired or can’t really be bothered (either might be the case, but he can’t afford to show it, if he is to be statesmanlike). If he sat taller, even leaning ever so slightly forward towards his interviewer he would look more alert, ‘in the moment’, ready and keen to talk. When he stands he is apt to shuffle about a bit.
It has to be said, when he is speaking at the ballot box for example, it would be better if he was not peering over his glasses. I sympathise with this problem, having to wear reading glasses now myself (after years of never having to). But there is a way of moving them a little further down your nose so that you can look over them at your audience more easily, with your head lifted and poised. This way you can avoid the furtive looking up, over your glasses without really raising you head. Better still, when circumstances allow, work off bullet point notes written large!
Mr Corbyn could do with using more pause. The most compelling speakers, whatever the environment and context, have a mastery of pause; they know instinctively where to pause and how long they can let the silence linger, when needed. Pause allows us time to think about what they are saying, it adds meaning and emphasis to words; it draws out our emotions as we think about what is being said. In short, pause draws us in. Watching and listening to Mr Corbyn, there are times when he isn’t pausing well; he may still be articulate but the meaning and emphasis are significantly diminished. I’ve even seen him gulping for air as he runs out of breath; an important function of pausing is to allow you to breathe and gulping is a sure sign that the speaker isn’t pausing efficiently. (You might want to be aware of this in your own delivery).
Good breathing supports other aspects of voice that are absolutely key in achieving presence and statesmanlike qualities, ones which Mr Corbyn does not have. His voice doesn’t project and it lacks resonance. When he speaks his voice drops in front of him. To explain, it is always as though he is talking to people just a foot or so in front of him. But he might be, I hear you say. Indeed, but to really reach out to people, however close or far away they may be, our voices need to do just that: a voice needs to ‘bounce’ out of the mouth and ‘bop’ the people listening on the nose. Does that conjure up a lovely image? Good. But that’s how it needs to be so that listeners feel involved, included, wanted, talked to. A voice that stays trapped in the throat so that it barely comes out, and then only enough to drop over the lips and onto the floor will not engage us. This is all pretty subliminal stuff but it really makes a difference I assure you; we will quite subconsciously be drawn into a voice that projects and not to one that doesn’t. We will also be drawn into a resonant voice. Think of someone you like listening to, celebrity or friend. Try and analyse the quality of their voice. It probably has a lovely resonance; a fullness and balance between the low, mid, and high notes. Mr Corbyn has a predominance of higher notes, his voice is predominantly ‘up in his head’ and lacks fullness. This makes him less interesting to listen to; instinctively, not rationally.
I think Mr Corbyn’s energy, or apparent lack of it, is doing him a disservice. We don’t want our politicians pushing their words at us, pointing and table thumping (metaphorically or actually), over-emphasising words and phrases with dull, repetitive unnatural inflections. Yes, I do think this is what too many of them do! But we do want someone with plenty of movement and colour in their voice: changes in inflection and pace, variation in pauses; but also in their body language: sitting or standing tall and poised, using hand gesture (naturally not choreographed), good eye contact, with resonant projecting voices. This is what I mean by energy, and this is what really makes a difference as to how much you can engage people. I’d like to see Mr Corbyn have more energy. He has quite good facial expression, but his eyes don’t light up on his subject matter. His voice moves (inflects) but not overly so. I have seen him light up: I saw him interviewed by Jon Snow on Channel 4 News when he got on to talking about his childhood in Jamaica and he suddenly came alive. I’m sure there are other examples, but in my research for this article I took a cross section of examples of his speaking and this one stood out. It dawns on me now that I switch off, mentally or physically, when he is speaking otherwise I might have more examples. That is telling in itself!
As a last point I can’t ignore Jeremy’s (I feel I know him better now and can dispense with the ‘Mr Corbyn’), Jeremy’s sartorial choices. It does matter what you wear. If you look a little shabby, you not only looked tired and harassed, but it suggests a lack of respect for the people you are talking to: they don’t deserve for you to make an effort. I’ll say no more.
I seem to have concluded that Mr Corbyn is not very statesmanlike. But as a parting shot I would like to say this for him: his articulacy, succinctness and honest language do convey his sincerity and decency. His delivery is undoubtedly different to most of our current politicians. Maybe this in itself is enough to make people listen, at least at the first hearing, so perhaps he can get away with not being statesmanlike? What do you think?