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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

 

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The Brussels challenge: how to deliver better speeches

On Wednesday 9th September, Jean-Claude Juncker, will deliver his first State of the Union (#SOTEU) speech as President of the European Commission.

Despite being a comparatively recent addition to the EU’s political calendar (the SOTEU was introduced less than a decade ago), in its short life the speech has nonetheless managed to attract the kind of political sniping and rhetorical mockery (gentle or otherwise) that is usually reserved for much higher profile events.

To tune in to this have a look at some of the fun Jon Worth (euro blogger and creator of JunckerBullsh*tBingo) and Craig Winneker (a journalist at Politico EU) have been having ahead of the speech.

In a way, these digital digs are a back handed acknowledgment that the SOTEU has ‘arrived’ as an event.  But behind the perennial moans about mutated metaphors, stiff delivery and awful Eurish phrases lies a broader point – doing public speaking well in multi-lingual environments is fiendishly hard.

More broadly, what continues to amaze me about Brussels is that despite the amount of money sloshing around in communications and public affairs, very little gets spent on improving the actual quality of public speaking. And much of it is really quite awful.

Unfortunately, it’s also prolific – a partial inversion of Woody Allen’s 1977 Annie Hall Joke in which his comedian Alvy Singer tells the following anecdote:

‘There’s an old joke – um… two elderly women are at a Catskill mountain resort, and one of ’em says, “Boy, the food at this place is really terrible.” The other one says, “Yeah, I know; and such small portions.”‘

Only in Brussels, the portions are big.

Doing public speaking well in multi-lingual environments is tough

I am not going to go into detail about the reason for the bad public speaking – although it does have to do with some non-natives speaking in their second or third language and a political culture that has long divorced policy expertise and substance from performance, as well as the fact that many policy experts are not natural orators.

However, whether it’s a roundtable, keynote speech, expert panel or Parliamentary hearing, there is no excuse for boring your audience to tears and leaving them hating you and your organisation.

So, here are a few tips specifically aimed at those who have to write or deliver speeches for EU policy audiences.

The speaker must put themselves in the audience’s shoes

Remind your speaker that a speech is a piece of theatre and that their job is to keep the audience’s attention throughout. No one can or should assume that an audience will be persuaded by or remember a piece of text that has been read in a dull and passionless way. This does not mean they have to turn into Laurence Olivier but it does mean getting your speaker to acknowledge that more is expected of them than simply turning up to read a speech that could otherwise have been e-mailed. If it means getting them into the ‘zone’ 10 minutes beforehand by taking them to a quiet room and going through the opening paragraphs, then do it. It can make all the difference for concentrating the mind on the task ahead.

Play to your speaker’s strengths

Not all cultures favour boldness in public speaking. Many take a more low-key approach and if your speaker is of the humble variety then work with it. If they are uncomfortable using imagery, tricolons or other kinds of rhetorical devices, don’t fight to include them while the text is being prepared. It will look much worse if they are clearly uncomfortable during the speech and it is your job to make them feel comfortable with the material, not to turn them into something they aren’t. But jargon should be removed and I think relevant anecdotes and examples work well for all personality types and should be included, provided they are authentic.

Help them improve eye-contact

Break the speech up into chunks and consider organising it onto numbered index cards rather than pages. Ideally each card should only have one or two paragraphs on it but I appreciate this may be too radical for some. Breaking up the text not only helps the speaker to make appropriate pauses and allow the audience to digest but also encourages them to look up because they have fewer words to read on the page.

Highlight key phrases

Embolden key words that you want the audience to take away from the speech. Add the verbal connectors such as ‘for example’ or ‘however’ to introduce new ideas. You could also write (PAUSE) and (BREATHE) at the points where you want your speaker to pause for effect or to allow the audience some space before introducing new ideas.

Rehearse, rehearse, rehearse

Get your speaker to rehearse several times, ideally on camera, then play back their performance and give honest but constructive feedback (if you can’t be that person then get someone who can be honest with the speaker). If they aren’t convinced that rehearsal is essential, getting them to look at the hard evidence of the video tape can make all the difference. It will also help to weed out fast or monotonous delivery, as well as words that are hard to pronounce or get lost if the speaker has a particularly strong accent.

Less is usually more

Mid career many of us are expected to speak in public

Not many speakers can hold an audience’s attention for as long as they think they can. Just because you know a lot about a subject does not mean that you have to say it all on every occasion. Persuade your speaker to make the point he or she wishes to make, with power and passion, and then sit down.

These are just a few tips. What others do you have?

 

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The words you think make you interesting to journalists are anything but

Interviewees overuse certain phrases which devalue them for journalists

When, if ever, is it acceptable to describe something as a ‘game-changer’ to a journalist?

One exception might be when a multibillion dollar tech company suffers a shock defeat in a court case which has landmark implications for the rest of the sector. That’s probably acceptable. Just about. But only because it’s probably an accurate reflection of the facts, and spoken by a lawyer, which means he will have chosen his words with precision.

However, I was still disappointed that I couldn’t find a better quote in this morning’s FT when reading about the Google data-privacy verdict. Not with the journalists, but with the people giving them the quotes. If the hacks had to resort to ‘game-changer’ for the quote then we truly are in a sorry state when it comes to word smithery.

There is a pervasive trend for media spokespeople to use phrases and soundbites that they think make them sound as though they are being interesting and profound when they are being anything but. In media training we call it ‘ positive-bland’ and it refers to people who use language incorrectly, or pick phrases that are so dull or overused so that they become meaningless, if not vacuous during interviews. This is not the same as using jargon, which carries its own evils, but positive-bland can flirt dangerously close to management-speak.

Game-changer is, indeed, a guilty culprit in the lexicon of positive-bland. Other usual suspects include ‘passionate’, ‘innovative’, ‘tragedy’ (really: when was it a tragedy that a football club fired its manager?) and ‘it’s all about the customer-experience’. PRs should also take note when trying to pitch to journalists. As one journalist friend mournfully notes, the most overused pitch phrases are ‘exclusive’, ‘unique’ and ‘I’ve got a scoop for you’. Invariably, they haven’t.

When crafting soundbites, it is important to pick words that are not only creative and fresh but also accurate. Otherwise, if everything is a ‘tragedy’ or ‘game-changer’, how are people going to take you seriously or find you interesting enough to quote? This was particularly evident during the financial crisis when certain prominent business journalists got very overexcited when Northern Rock went bust. But when the big American banks started going under six months later they had no way to capture the seriousness of what was happening because they had already used up all their superlatives.

If you are happy to use boring yet hyperbolic phrases that make journalists roll their eyes, then carry on being bland. Or you could spend ten minutes thinking of some different words that set you and your organisation apart. It might be an incredibly useful, if not game-changing, shift in approach. But it almost certainly won’t be a ‘paradigm shift’.