WHEN I was a young parliamentary candidate, just chosen by the Clydesdale constituency against everyone’s expectations including my own, I found myself suddenly thrust into the campaign to save the Gartcosh Steel Mill.

In the autumn of 1985, I tramped around party and public meetings in central Scotland, sometimes acting as second or third fiddle to the redoubtable Jim Sillars as he put the case for a Scottish Parliament taking charge of the Scottish economy which was being driven into the ground by Margaret Thatcher.

Whatever has happened since, I will always be grateful to Jim for providing me with a master class in public speaking because at that time, he was one of the finest orators in Scotland.

The National: Jim Sillars. Picture: GARY DOAK/Alamy Live News

I used to watch in awe as he stood up with only a word or two written on the back of an envelope and proceeded to hold the audience in the palm of his hand. He built an extraordinary rapport with them, honestly addressing questions or doubts and sharing insights and arguments that were second to none. Most importantly of all, he didn’t harangue or hector – he respected those listening and always met them on equal terms.

Then, and subsequently, when I campaigned with him in the Govan and Glasgow Central by-elections, he taught me the vital skill of feeling where the audience was. He taught me how to watch for signs of engagement or disengagement, how to listen as well as speak, and how to focus on what was important rather than being sidetracked into jargon.

Most particularly, it was the skill of breaking free from words on paper and instead carving them anew in the air each time, using deep knowledge, strong commitment, infectious enthusiasm and a big dollop of inspiration that helped steer me in the right direction over the years, as scary as such solo flight always is.

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He also introduced me to the perils and pleasures of the stump speech – the speech that has to be made night after night on the same topic.

The term comes from 19th-century America when candidates would ride around on horseback, stopping at small communities to stand on a tree stump and address the – no doubt – somewhat surprised but keen to be entertained, local population.

I have had to create and deliver such speeches on many occasions – minus the horse and the bit of old tree – including at more than 30 hustings when I stood for the SNP leadership in 2004, as a senior party member supporting local candidates during national elections and during the 2014 indyref, when I set myself the task of trying to hold a meeting in every village hall in Argyll & Bute.

The three candidates for the SNP leadership are presently learning the same lessons as they address, in four short weeks, nine party hustings, another one jointly sponsored by this newspaper and the SNP Trade Union Group, and four televised events as well as a host of campaign meetings organised by their teams.

The biggest problem is boredom with what feels like repetition. However, it only seems that way to the candidate and consequently, once in the groove of laying out a clear and persuasive case, it is best to stick to it, with small variations to suit place and audience. Politicians often give up on arguments just when they are succeeding – something that the SNP should particularly recall given they did so in the 70s with the highly successful “It’s Scotland Oil” campaign.

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Another error is to think you can only demonstrate your own virtues by fiercely attacking others. In fact, you make friends with a smile, not a snarl – which also took the whole of the SNP a while to discover.

In reality, it was only after the 2004 leadership election that the party finally accepted the need for positive campaigning and the success of that strategy was seen in the outcome not just of the 2007 Holyrood election but of every election since.

In my own former constituency, my principal opponent was usually the LibDem candidate and every publication that the LibDems put out (complete of course with a dodgy bar chart) listed what they believed were the manifest failings of the SNP in general and me in particular. The only effect it had, however, was to diminish their own vote as it was a dismal, depressing read which offered not a scintilla of hope to local people.

Our opponents specialise in bad news and it has done them no good at all, as they go on losing elections. We go on winning them by spreading the good news – not just of our clear competence in government but also of independence which is, at its very heart, a message of hope.

Voters – inside and outside the party – need to know how their lives will change with independence. It’s vital to illustrate how their children and grandchildren will flourish, how their pensions and wages will increase, how their life chances and standard of living will get better, how the environment all around them will improve, how public services will flourish and how their trust in politicians – and particularly SNP politicians – will be repaid.

No politician is perfect and all make mistakes. Honesty about this is good, provided it goes hand in hand with a determination to learn from experience.

The SNP have actually been a very stable party, less given to internal dispute than most others in Scotland – except for the occasional outburst usually about the route to independence. They have understood and demonstrated that party unity is indeed strength though, of course, any departure from that always gets the media salivating. The truth is that a mere 19 people have contested the SNP leadership since 1947 – a total that puts others to shame – and this is the first such contest in 19 years.

Our present candidates for leadership are having to learn a lot very quickly – not least about stump speeches. Let’s help them to do it as positively as possible because when the stumping is over, we will all have to work together to finally deliver for Scotland.