The loser’s speech

What do you say to a crowd if you have just lost a general election? Even worse, if it was an election that punters predicted you would definitely win. Does it have to be sombre, awkward and pathetic? Let’s take a look at the options.


As the tide of the federal election recedes, and we find ourselves wandering along a bleak coastline littered with tattered election flyers, how-to-vote cards and mounds of post-election analysis and critique, I have been a little surprised by the positive commentary on Bill Shorten’s concession speech. He has been praised for admitting his disappointment, for eschewing anger and congratulating his opponent, and for signalling hope in the future. Fair enough but let’s be honest too: he looked utterly devastated, he couldn’t deliver his speech off the cuff, he came across as insincere, he was boring and he rattled off a long list of slogans from the Labor campaign in an ‘oh so weary’ voice that made me think: ‘did this guy ever deserve to win?’

Granted, it was a tough night for Labor. Really tough. But a leader is meant to lead, not just in mind and action but in spirit. It is in moments of crisis and defeat that people turn to a leader for guidance, hope, purpose and resilience. I’m not saying Shorten should have transformed himself into Polyanna, but he could have made more of his final moments in the limelight. Let’s consider some of his options.

  1. Slam it

Anger is an easy option but it is rarely advisable. You can’t show anger with the electorate (even if you feel it) because as Aristotle helpfully says, ‘the angry man must always be angry with a particular person, not with mankind in general’. Of course, you can slam your opponent, and deliver your good wishes to your opponent and their family through gritted teeth, reminding them that it’s devastatingly hard work in public office, but it won’t change the fact that you lost. It is not classy and it will not be respected. It will confirm the views of those who voted against you and make them hate you even more.

Shorten did a pretty good job of concealing his anger. Score: 4/5.

  1. Reframe it

You can reframe your defeat as temporary, insignificant or not a loss at all. You have to be careful with this approach because it can come across as denial (and everyone can see through that). The intention is rather to reframe the loss as a) an event that has not destroyed all the good work you have done in the past and b) an event that has not destroyed your hope for the future: see, for example, Abbott’s 2019 line: “I’m not going to let one bad day spoil 25 great years”, or Rudd’s 2013 reframing of Labor’s loss as an opportunity to reform the party and its leadership. Hope is important, and it’s inspirational, and it’s just about all you have left once you’ve hit the bottom of the barrel (as the myth of Pandora illustrates so well) so emphasise HOPE.

Shorten said he was hopeful – he just wasn’t convincing. Score 2.5/5.

  1. Pollyanna it

There are positives to be found in every situation, even defeat. You can focus on the extraordinary loyalty and support of the people you work with. You can focus on your achievements and your pride in those achievements. You can focus on the values and principles you stand for and the importance of those principles. You can point out that you have not shied away from the difficulties of the contest (Keating’s 1996 line, “I’ll tell you what, folks, not once did I tackle and take on a second-best option” and Tony Abbott’s 2019 line “I would rather be a loser than a quitter”). Find the positives and work with them.

Shorten tried to be positive but he looked and sounded miserable. Score: 1/5.

  1. Laugh it off

Humour in a concession speech is extremely important and it can be a potent weapon. For a loser to use humour in their concession speech proves that that person is able to rise above defeat, to see the bigger picture and to engage with the audience. If the humour is sensitive, truly witty and delivered with positivity, it is irresistible and makes everyone regret that that person is about to depart from public life. Here’s a reasonable example from Anna Bligh, 2012, after commenting in her concession speech that it was her son’s 19th birthday: “At this time, nineteen years ago, I was in labour. And this campaign has been a bit like that, but it’s been five weeks longer!” And here’s a bad example from Kevin Rudd, 2013, after thanking Penny Wong for all her great work: “Rarely, Penny, do South Australians get that welcome up here. Mind you, I’m married to one” (cue awkward hug with wife).

Humour can be a very effective tool if you can truly rise above defeat. Remember to wave down at your opponent from your happy little cloud of laughter as you drift up and away into the sky.

As for Bill, no jokes this time. Score: 0/5.

5. Work the crowd

Emotions run high during concession speeches. The audience has been waiting for hours for the speaker to arrive. They desperately want to boo the opponent and they desperately want to clap their leader. This sort of audience should never be ignored. It is crucial to engage. Look them in the eye and talk to them as people, as friends, as loved ones, as supporters. Whatever you do, don’t ignore them, don’t wave at them to be quiet, and don’t fail to interact with their heckling. One of the best heckles came in Keating’s 1996 concession speech and he lapped it up: “You can take the boy out of Bankstown, but you can’t take Bankstown out of the boy!”

Shorten’s score: 1/5.

  1. Keep it brief

There is nothing worse than adding poor time management skills to one’s list of attributes as a loser. Stay long enough to thank everyone you really need to thank. Say something meaningful. Remind them surreptitiously how great you are and that they have made a big mistake and then DEPART. Graciously, charmingly, with a smile, and with one’s head held high.

Shorten’s score: 1/5.

Yes, folks, it is possible to deliver a good concession speech. Maybe next time, ScoMo, what do you say?

Dr Sonia Pertsinidis teaches ‘Rhetoric: the art of persuasion in the ancient and modern worlds‘ at the Australian National University in Canberra, Australia.

Image: Yahoo News Australia


What does Pythagoras have to do with the moon?


This year marks the 50th Anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing. To commemorate this remarkable technological achievement, the Australian National University is currently hosting a series of lectures exploring the moon through the ages (Works that Shaped the World: ANU Discovery Series 2019).

I was recently invited to present a lecture in the series. I chose to speak about the mysterious Greek philosopher Pythagoras and his theory of the music of the spheres, that is, the theory that each planet and heavenly body emits a sound as it travels through space and that these sounds combine to produce harmonious music.

What would Pythagoras have made of the moon landing? What would he think about his name being ascribed to an impact crater on the north-western rim of the Moon? What would he make of our efforts to hear the ‘sounds’ of planets or to transmit music into space?

Join me for a voyage of discovery, starting in the sixth century BC and ending in the present day, exploring the life and ideas of Pythagoras: a truly remarkable, multidisciplinary and unconventional thinker:

With thanks to the ANU for permission to reproduce the recording (which starts at 22:28).

Recommended reading:

Christoph Riedweg, Pythagoras: His Life, Teaching and Influence, Cornell University Press, 2005.

Sarah B. Pomeroy, Pythagorean Women: Their History and Writings, Johns Hopkins University Press, 2013.

Image: bust of Pythagoras, Capitoline Museum, Rome. Source: Internet Commons.