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.
– 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.
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