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Juncker disappoints: We want more from EU speakers

This article first appeared on Hearings.Digital-Diplomacy.EU

What is the purpose of a speech?

Judging from some of the conversations I’ve been having with people on Twitter, I have been unfair to the President of the European Commission, Jean-Claude Juncker, because I wanted him to deliver his State of the Union speech in an engaging and convincing manner.

When I make comments like this, people in Brussels often assume that this is somehow a dig at the speaker’s English (which is usually perfect) and that I should cut them some slack because they are often talking in their third or fourth language.

So before I start this blog in full I want to make a number of things clear.

I am in awe of people who work in several languages

As a Brit who works almost exclusively in her mother tongue and speaks passable (but not professional) French and Spanish, I know how hard it is to work at an effective and nuanced level in other languages.

Doing speeches in multi-lingual environments is tough

This is partly because of language but also genuine cultural differences which exist over what makes an authoritative public speaker. Personally I think speeches should be banned from EU policy environments because they don’t add anything and almost all policymakers do better when taking questions rather than delivering set piece speeches which they aren’t good at.

I don’t want everyone to sound like Tony Blair

 

Or Angelina Jolie.

Far from it. I want them to be the best possible version of themselves if they are going to convince an audience to listen to their message. This does not make me superficial and unduly fixated on metaphors.  Nor does it mean I overlook substance in favour of rhetorical flourish (whatever that is). Rather, it means I accept that all public speaking is an exercise in creating and sustaining a convincing connection with an audience over a set period of time.  The Greeks knew this thousands of years ago when they were using speechmaking to cement ‘democracy’ in Athens. And not being boring matters more than ever in the increasingly impressionistic digital age we now live in.

So, caveats aside, the speech was a game of two halves. It was beautifully crafted, with lovely soundbites, great numbers and sticky stories but delivered in such a flat and listless way that it made me want to put a biro through my eyeball.

Quite simply, you wouldn’t have known this was the make or break speech it had been trailed as.

Juncker’s well written State of the Union was undermined by his flat delivery

The Good

Beautifully written: lots of sizzling soundbites such as  ‘There is a lack of Europe in Europe and a lack of union in the European Union’ and ‘Europe cannot house all the world’s misery’. Chapeau to Juncker’s speechwriters, who have done a very good job in focusing the content on the audience.
Great numbers – such as 20mn Poles live outside Poland – helped create a strong narrative arc and context for discussing the refugee crisis.
Strong storytelling and examples to help make the speech visual and real. There was also very little jargon. Good, good, good.

The Bad

Just one major point: the delivery was flat with terrible energy  and no light or shade (in all three languages, not just English). This is not a language issue. It’s a performance issue. No speaker will be convincing if they do not seem interested in and engaged by their own subject. Most of us have to fake energy and enthusiasm when it comes to public speaking. It does not mean you have to be a fake to do it.
I am a broken record on the energetic delivery point. I cannot emphasize this enough. You can have the best or worst content in the world but if you have no ooomph as a speaker  then you will always fail to ignite or even connect with your audience.
A strong speech certainly helps. But performance, passion and conviction are everything

 

About Laura Shields

Laura Shields is Brussels Director of The Media Coach. After graduating from Cambridge University in 2000, she worked as a financial producer for CNN and CNBC Europe in London before moving to BBC News as the Economics and Business Analyst. At the BBC Laura also produced political and financial news for Radio 4′s World at One and PM programmes and was a key member of the teams that produced the TV results coverage for the UK, US and European elections. Laura was a contributor to the BBC website and has also had her work published in Open Democracy and Communication Director and Outsource Magazines. Laura is now working as a media trainer, journalist and panel moderator based in Brussels. As a journalist she reports from the major EU Summits and moderates high level conferences and panels for clients including the European Commission and Parliament, the UN, businesses and NGOs. Laura hosts Media Training, Presentation Training, Social Media Training, Crisis Media Training and Message Building courses for The Media Coach.

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  1. Robert Matthews
    Robert Matthews says:

    Great piece, and one that raises two questions. First, does Juncker ever bother to watch his own performances – as every delegate in a media training session has to, often reluctantly – in order to improve ? And if he does, can he really not see just how awful he is, and feel the need to improve ?

    There are two people I routinely use as exemplars of the importance of energy in delivery. Here’s Richard Quest of CNN demonstrating how even the most yawn-inducing story can be made entertaining by effective use of intonation:

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WInlkF8svoc

    And here’s dear old Andy Murray, managing to make winning Wimbledon seem boring even with a huge crowd cheering him on. Ignore them, and focus on his words and delivery (he had won, right ?).

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uapCx5yEbGQ

    Reply

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