“Joe knows the anguish of sitting at a table with an empty chair.” So said Michelle Obama in her closer to the Democrats’ first night of their virtual convention.
This line, about the tragedies experienced by Joe Biden in his life, was one of many beautifully crafted images in a typically brilliant speech. The empathy she showed in her address, and recognised in this line about Biden was in savage contrast to her take-down of Donald Trump.
It was never going to be an easy task to pull off the drama and theatre of convention speeches without a live audience. The sound of no hands clapping is the most depressing culmination to any speech given outside a courtoom. There are things for others to learn from the oddity of this occasion.
The backdrop chosen for Bernie Sanders (a wall of chopped wood) put me in mind of Twin Peaks, although Twitter assures me it is very on-brand for Vermont. Either way, some of the lines from a normally exciting speaker felt pretty wooden too.
Nero fiddled while Rome burned. Trump golfed.
Eeesh. That’s more deadwood than a twisted fire starter, but his speech urging his supporters to get behind Biden did the job required.
Meanwhile, a Republican speaker for Biden, John Kasich, claimed that America was at a crossroads. He filmed his remarks at… you guessed it. A crossroads. If these are the rules now, I look forward to Trump’s next address about Space Force. Poor old Kasich became an instant meme, but I do have some sympathy with him. No live audience — your presence on screen is everything, so what do you do with it?
Governor Cuomo’s answer, in his characterisctcally pugnacious five minute slot, was to reprise the feel of his famous daily press conferences, complete with slides. That works for him, that’s who he is to the nation now. He was right to embrace it.
In the Obamas, the Democrats are blessed with two of the great speakers of our time. And so the former First Lady went with a minimal backdrop, a blurred Biden poster visible over one shoulder. The only visual trickery, an occasional use of a second camera angle. And so the words were left to carry the day. And they did so, but only just.
Her remarks were brilliantly crafted, and delivered perfectly — bending her tone slightly to a more informal style. Even so, and despite delivering a punishing (and out-of-character) ad hominem attack, it was pushing it a little at 18 minutes to hold the attention completely. Others will stumble and fall if they try and repeat this style. They need to innovate. Or keep it short. Ideally, do both.
As political speeches go, those delivered at conventions, and party conferences here in the UK, are different beasts. They are longer and cover much more varied ground than you’d ever recommend for almost any other kind of talk. And pretty much the only thing that makes even the best of them survivable are the laughs, the claps and cheers. Sometimes the tension too, if the speaker is challenging the audience a little.
It will be interesting to see how the rest of the Convention unfolds. Whether we start to see more film interspersing the speeches. Will anyone experiment a little more. Speeches about the war on coronavirus from an actual war zone? Interesting too, will be what the parties on this side of the pond can learn about capturing the room via zoom. Early lessons from this convention are: if you’re going to rely just on words, take the tone down from bullhorn, to living-room-friendly — and those words will really have to fly. For the mortal, non-Obamas, keep it short. And use the TV screen as God intended — more moving pictures, please.