Facebook Debate: Shorten still “only marginally livelier than a dead tree”

Despite significant ongoing vocal work, opposition leader Bill Shorten is still “only marginally livelier than a dead tree”
Despite significant ongoing public speaking training, opposition leader Bill Shorten has struggled with his physical and verbal communication.

Until recently, Bill Shorten’s dry, dull, blunt and often emotionless vocal presentation was regular fodder for comedians and satirists alike.

Having studied physical theatre myself, I’ve literally squirmed in my seat watching Shorten’s hapless attempts to improve his communication style. Still, I have to give credit to Shorten’s ongoing commitment to work on this area and give respect to the patience shown by his vocal coach (Victoria University’s Dean Frankel who lectures in Public Speaking when he’s not practising meditation and throat singing).

However, while Shorten has been putting in the hard yards to improve his communication – improving his posture, voice and expression, the results have still been often painful to watch. Shorten often leads from his eyebrows, and so when he was encouraged to move his head while he speaks rather than stay still like a robot with a neck injury – you can see Bill’s head follow his eye brows. Over to the left, and to the right, and to the left – with every single sentence.

As one Labor figure has stated, “He’s just been woefully deficient in the basics that you would expect from a party leader – being able to speak with some authenticity, for starters… That’s surprising for someone who has told people that he’s wanted this all his life.”

One thing that has genuinely improved is dropping his vocal register – his voice is far less screechy and now carries a modicum of gravitas – but still lagging far behind, say, Turnbull’s often confident and mellifluous tones. He’s even learned how to pause for emphasis! Unfortunately these pauses do look terribly rehearsed and practised, the tension in his body raises in readiness for the pause (and those wandering eyebrows go half-way up his head whenever he forgets to keep them firmly furrowed) – so tense that he doesn’t even use the pause to take a breath. Still, the combination of pauses and a lower register has allowed a sense of Bill’s conviction to shine through – Bill may be wrong about how to lead the country, and he’s often light on providing evidence for his views – but at least viewers can now see that he often really believes what he is saying.

Sadly, even with these modest improvements, after over a year’s worth of training he has not been able to develop the paragraph-length (let alone monologue-length) crests and lulls essential for effective story-telling. To avoid the picture-book ‘sing-song’ lilt that plagued Shorten’s early vocal attempts, training appears to have focused on teaching him to establish emphasis in each sentence. Unfortunately for Shorten – He’s only been able to establish the SAME pattern of vocal emphasis for EVERY sentence (De-DA, da da da [pause] DA DUM [breathe & repeat]) regardless of topic or the sentence’s position within a larger discourse.

A train-crash of an example occurred just this week with Shorten’s closing statement at the recent Facebook Leader’s Debate. Prime Minister Turnbull’s closing statement combined inspirational words with captivating (if clearly rehearsed) delivery, “We have the most exciting opportunities in our History… The opportunities are huge, we can do anything… With a strong economy I’m enabling the dreams of Every Australian.”
In contrast (perhaps recognising that Shorten was not up to the task) some Labor staffer’s bright idea was to ditch even trying to get him to develop a picture for the audience and instead just gave him a minute’s worth of one sentence dot-points on which to close. No vision, just ten “I want to make sure”s in a row – no wonder it falls flat:

There is no development across sentences, no drop in voice to engage the viewer, no growth towards a crescendo – and no variation in pauses between sentences. It’s like watching a Newton’s Cradle – you know ahead of time what you’re going to see, you know what it’s going to sound like and that it’s just going to keep going at the..same..monotonous..pace.

Shorten deserves credit for his dedication to developing his communication skills beyond the clarion calls of union rallies. But despite his work in this area, Shorten has shown repeatedly throughout this election campaign that, as a writer from the Age recently stated, he is still only “marginally livelier than a dead tree.”