Leadership and the Power of Persuasion

Julia Gillard’s speech on sexism not only made headlines for its explosive content, its electrifying delivery was certainly uncharacteristic of a Prime Minister often accused of being ‘wooden’ and ‘contrived’.

Gillard’s difficulties with political communication are not unique and many other leaders have struggled to strike the right chord in their conversations with the electorate. In fact, in modern politics, the way the message is conveyed can prove just as influential as the message itself, in terms of shaping impressions of a leader and constructing their political persona.

An examination of the communication styles of some of our recent prime ministers illustrates the point:

Paul Keating’s parliamentary performances are the stuff of legend. Quick-witted and combative, he was famous for terrorising and humiliating his opponents. Outside of the parliament, his approach wasn’t quite so popular. Not one to suffer fools gladly, he gained a reputation for aloofness. His aggressive style began to reinforce perceptions that he was arrogant and out of touch. Ultimately, it was an impression that would sow the seeds of his undoing.

John Howard emerged as the perfect foil to the bombastic Keating. Howard wasn’t a remarkable debater or an inspiring speaker, he was simply an earnest straight talker – “Honest John”. He did however possess a remarkable ability to turn-up the tempo to reflect the national mood and harness it for his own political purposes. His “we will decide who comes to this country and the circumstances in which they come” speech, is a case in point. Laced with anger and indignation, Howard captured the anxiety of post September 11 Australia and deployed it as a powerful political weapon.

As opposition leader, Kevin Rudd also proved to be an effective communicator. Relentlessly on message, his style was uniquely suited to election campaigning.

As prime minister, however this controlled presentation began to alienate him from the electorate. The excessive use of scripted talking points proved particularly jarring. Like a pop star miming, his lips were moving but the presentation just wasn’t convincing.

More damaging for Rudd, his efforts to project a more relatable image (“fair shake of the sauce bottle”) appeared contrived and only served to raise more questions about his credibility. Voters began to wonder precisely who was hiding behind this carefully manufactured political image.

It was in this context that Labor turned to Rudd’s deputy, Julia Gillard. Direct, passionate and articulate Gillard mastered the ‘cut through’ in a way that Rudd could not.

As Prime Minister, however Gillard has struggled. While she has remained an effective parliamentary performer, Question Time only represents a small portion of prime ministerial media appearances. Outside of the Parliament, she has all too often appeared staged and contrived. Like her predecessor, her prime ministership has become synonymous with repetition and jargon.

Against the backdrop of Gillard’s messy elevation to the Labor leadership and charges of broken election promises, this perceived lack of authenticity has only served to underscore the electorate’s doubts about their Prime Minister.

Like Rudd, Gillard has tended towards a safe and bland presentation that often fails to inspire or excite. This seems to be based on the mistaken belief that strong and passionate advocacy risks alienating those in disagreement. But in reality, the converse is true. Voters respect leaders who believe in their cause and reflect this in their sales pitch. In an age of mass political cynicism, conviction is a rare and celebrated quality.

Anyone doubting the power of political persuasion need only consider the US election campaign. While Obama went into his first debate with Romney the frontrunner, his lacklustre performance sapped his campaign of energy and momentum. However, after a more convincing performance in Round 2, Obama emerged resurgent and back in the game.

Last week Gillard finally stopped playing it safe. Her speech on sexism was compelling and persuasive – sending shivers down the spines of her detractors and goosebumps up the arms of her supporters. It is precisely this kind of passion that Gillard must evoke if she is to succeed where her predecessor failed.

While Gillard still has a long way to go to convince voters that she is the best person to lead the nation, but her sexism speech may well have mapped out a potential course for her political rehabilitation.

This piece was first published on The Drum Opinion on the 22nd of October 2012. 

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