As David Shearer shapes up for a knock down drag out Tuesday with his putative challenger, David Cunliffe, it is an ideal moment to consider and contrast the pair and their abilities as communicators.
Presumably, this factor should be a major driver of the caucus decision, although it’s impossible not to feel that personal animosity, ambition and avarice will play their part with some individuals.
As a communicator David Shearer has been constantly assailed by commentators, myself included, for a severe lack of coherence in his speech. He ‘self-edits’ what he is saying and as a result continually changes the words he is uttering, like an old typewriter going back and crossing out a word and substituting another, before repeating the process yet again.
Because of this his speech is halting, the meaning often lost in a barrage of verbal rewrites, and he appears halting and unsure of himself.
Shearer needs the confidence to trust what he is about to say instead of second and third guessing himself. My guess is he is getting so much advice about what to and what not to say that he has a cacophony of contradictory small voices in his head during an interview that he cannot satisfactorily blot out.
That said, he has of late sounded more sure of himself, more confident. My guess is that this is a man who needs to get angry more often. The angrier he gets the more clarity he achieves because when the adrenalin is pumping the little voices with their kind but confusing advice are downed out.
His overall tone is one of reasoned reasonableness. Shearer’s presentation in stump speeches is not bad, although his manner, such as at the weekend conference, still can appear a little contrived. Yet, when he overcomes the self-editing process, he comes across as honest and as someone who genuinely believes what he is saying.
Shearer appears to be at his best in one-on-one situations, face to face with people, talking and persuading them with his considerable personal charm.
By contrast, David Cunliffe is generally seen as smooth, articulate and polished. In interviews and speeches he picks his words carefully and for effect. He sounds every inch the politician even if, at times, he also can sound arrogant and superciliously evasive under close questioning. To be frank, actually, Cunliffe does have the added disadvantage of a somewhat patronising tone in his voice on almost every occasion.
If there is a clear contrast between the two it is my impression that Shearer, for all his faults, sounds genuine and real while Cunliffe, for all his gloss, comes across as artificial and fake.
Shearer’s strength, as was John Key’s in 2008, is that he does not look or act like a politician. This promotes trust with those non-partisan voters who, presumably, are the ones most likely to be persuaded to vote for him.
My old friend Dr Brian Edwards has branded David Shearer “untrainable” and, I suspect, he is right. The answer then is not to try and train him into being something he is not.
With someone like Shearer the best that can be done is help him be himself, accentuate those characteristics and personality traits that are his strengths, and help him articulate simple, clear messages for public consumption.
David Shearer does need to use more forceful language, to be more categorical in his speech, and express himself clearly and concisely. More over, he needs to smile and appear confident any time he appears on camera. At times recently he has looked hunted and wary. Then again, he is being hunted and is rightfully wary but, for God’s sake, don’t show it.
Note that here I have not dwelt on the content of what either man says, I’m not talking about their respective ideologies, I’m talking about how they express themselves and how they are probably perceived by the public.
My personal opinion is that, given time, David Shearer can develop into a much better communicator than he is at present.
He has the advantage of already appearing a decent, honest, reasonable man. However, he needs to overcome the disadvantages of appearing unsure, uncomfortable, and unconfident.
If he can project himself, through his speech patterns and overall demeanour, in a clearer and more dynamic fashion while retaining the image of being a normal bloke, rather than a nakedly political critter, then by 2014 Labour may have a leader that could give John Key a run for his money.