Can oratory compete with always-on media and internet?


This week I attended an excellent breakfast event at RKCR Y&R. The theme was ‘Identity and Austerity: two topics that will shape 2015’. The three speakers were Catherine Kehoe, Managing Director Group Brands & Marketing at Lloyds Banking Group, Alex Neil MSP, Scottish Cabinet Secretary for Social Justice, Communities and Pensioners’ Rights, and our very own Stefano Hatfield, former Editor of Campaign and now Editor-in-Chief of High 50.

Kehoe covered austerity impressively, even if it made for depressing listening. She talked about youth unemployment, children being less well off than their parents and 40% of retirees not being able to fund their retirement. Neil gave a jaunty and upbeat spin on the pivotal role for the SNP in what he sees as the break-up of the GB political system. He scorned the idea of a Federal Britain, with England representing 88% of population. He feels that it is only the first independence referendum that has been lost (‘thanks to Gordon Brown’). He went on to say that Scotland are looking to sit at Europe’s top table ‘alongside Luxembourg!’

Hatfield reminded us what a talent he has as a commentator, with a passionate articulation of the significance of the 50+ segment population, both politically and in marketing terms. Already more than 30% of us are over 50, the 65+ segment will double in the next 17 years, and one in three children born this year should live to 100. He advised the ad industry against patronising older people and revealed that 97% of 50+ don’t think advertising (as a whole) is for them. 94% of people working in the business are under 50.

Three good speakers.

Three different subjects handled well in a way that made for a coherent story about the absolute inevitability of lasting change for Britain. It was a very warm and collegiate atmosphere in the room. It was so popular that there was standing room only. Ben Kay was an excellent host, and put on a really worthwhile event.

So why do I question the effectiveness of oratory in the light of a terrific morning at Greater London House? Four main reasons:

  1. The seminar took an hour and a half – more if you count getting there early for a coffee and bun (no bun for me, just three blackberries, which is two less than the handsets I have owned!). That’s quite a long time in receiving mode to listen to just three speakers, when we are used to TV and radio current affairs and news in 60 and 90 second gobbets.
  2. We are also used to hopping channels and websites, shouting at the TV, picking holes in everything we watch, interacting with the websites, and being as relentlessly mouthy and opinionated on social media as we are in the pub.
  3. I think most of us are deeply frustrated when we can’t join in. Having been researching meetings for nearly two years, you often see that frustration in the conference room, with aggression, interruptions, overtalking and generally bad behaviour.
  4. Listening to Alex Neil, good as he was, I was reminded of how fed up we get with politicians loading arguments and playing the ‘yah boo sucks to you’ game that will have driven us insane by the time 14th May comes.

I am certainly not saying oratory doesn’t work any more, but it’s a lot tougher nowadays for even the very best speakers. Unless the circumstances are exceptional, five minutes may be about the limit for one contributor. Experts tell us that most adults struggle to concentrate on any one thing for ten minutes, and in a seminar that probably has to include the speech, a couple of burning questions and the answers.

But that shouldn’t be too much of a worry for a profession that has mastered the art of making a brand famous in thirty seconds.


This is David’s contribution to the Marketing Society Blog in February. You can read it also here