Posts

Boris

Boris at his best

Boris Johnson is a Prime Minister under huge pressure, yet he delivered a witty, clever and rousing speech to the Conservative Party Conference on Wednesday. As I said last week, there are benefits to talking to your own party: you have a supportive audience and you can speak for as long as you like. Nevertheless, it is a showpiece that will be remembered. Particularly if it is your first as leader.

I am going to add my usual disclaimer. I am not commenting in this blog about politics; I am commenting on the science and the art of communicating in public. Whatever you think about Boris Johnson as a Prime Minister, as a Brexiter or as someone who is accused of having a tenuous relationship with the truth, the man can deliver a speech.

The full speech is available here but if you want to see a few highlights The Guardian has helpfully provided a short version:

What can we learn from Boris’s barnstorming?

So, what are the lessons? Here is my list.

  • Be entertaining. The political situation could not be more serious – some might say chaotic, but Johnson chooses to be upbeat, not downbeat, as well as funny.
  • Be relevant to your audience. The whole speech is peppered with political ‘in’ jokes which makes everyone feel part of the same tribe. Building that feeling of ‘our tribe – your tribe’ is a well known ‘trick’ of public speaking. I wrote about this in a blog entitled ‘PR and the role of the enemy.’
  • Use your voice in different ways for different parts of the speech. If you want to emphasise something, say it slowly and punch the words as in ‘’voted out of the jungle by now” (12 seconds into the edited version). The next sentence “At least we would have had the consolation of watching the Speaker being forced to eat a kangaroo testicle” is delivered fast and relatively downbeat, almost as a throw-away. That made it funnier than if it had been over-egged.  At 2’ 19” of the edit, we get a very heavily emphasised punch line to the long joke about Scottish fish. This light and shade, sometimes fast – sometimes slow, sometimes loud – sometimes quieter, makes the speech much more interesting to listen to.
  • Use the pause – I wrote about this at great length last week so it doesn’t need repeating.
  • At 2’ 27” we have the clever use of two examples. Those who have worked with me know that I am apt to bang on about the benefits of finding tangible stories, anecdotes and examples. Johnson was making the point that Britain has some very successful exports to countries outside the EU: He mentions an Isle of Wight shipbuilder who is exporting catamarans to Mexico and others who are exporting Jason Donovan CDs to North Korea. He could have talked about banking, insurance or Fintech but he chose something that people could picture. The takeaway – find examples that are tangible.
  • By adding the joke line “we recently briefly exported Nigel Farage to America but he seems to have come back” he delivered a third (mock) example. This allowed him the benefit of using a ‘power of three’. Lists are almost always best as threes. Again, it is a trick or device of public speaking known as a tricolon: the rhythm of it is attractive to the ear. There is nothing original about it, whole books have been written about ‘the power of three’. But here it is used with great effect.
  • Alliteration is always fun. 1’ 12” on the edit: “Can you think of a Communist Cosmonaut we Can Coach into the Cockpit?” It is difficult to think how one could get more hard Cs into a sentence. Someone had fun writing that.
  • Use colloquial language. At three minutes (3′ 00″) into the edit, we get: “I remember a time when people said solar power would never work in the cloudy UK and that wind turbines wouldn’t pull the skin off a rice pudding…” It was a serious point but made in a highly colloquial way.
  • Make fun of yourself. He said, “I paint bad pictures of buses”. I also think when he said “look it up” after making an obscure reference to the Soviet leader Konstantin Chernenko, he was acknowledging that he sometimes makes very obscure references.
  • End with a call to action. “Let’s get Brexit done, and bring this country back together.”

One thing that I think is not so good, Johnson is reading from a script rather than using autocue, which means he breaks the eye-line with the audience for quite a lot of the speech. This seems unnecessary in this day and age. Should you want to read his script you can find it here. As mentioned in a previous blog, good speeches do not need to have brilliant grammar and proper sentences and looking at it typed out you can see this is more a list of connected thoughts.

Finally, I feel compelled to add some balance and point out that over at the Politics Home website, some at least think the speech was not at all impressive. 

But for me (and apologies to all those that can’t get past Boris the buffoon who is ruining the country) I think it was an excellent speech whatever one’s politics.

 

olivia colman

Olivia Colman Snivels in Front of 30m TV Audience

Olivia Colman is a wonderful actress, I have huge respect for her and make a point of watching anything with her name attached. But I am deeply disappointed that she did such a pathetic speech at the Oscars.

I understand this is an occasion of very high emotion but given that she was one of the favourites to win best actress, there was always a good chance she was going to have to make the winners speech.

Surely, a little bit of forethought would have been a good idea – ensuring that she was a bit more comfortable on stage and her audience was a bit more entertained by her words.

What Can We Learn From Colman’s Performance?

As ever I am not really commenting on Olivia Colman herself, one could argue she does not need my advice. But I do think there are some clear takeaway lessons.

Think About the Practical Aspects of Any Outfit!

First things first, it might be a good idea, as a woman, if you know you might have to go on stage, to think about the dress. Perhaps, as a result of one or two of her roles, Ms Colman has fallen in love with the very full ball gown style. But that together with the train made mounting the stage somewhat inelegant. For business women rather than film stars, there are other considerations. If you are climbing up onto the stage anywhere, you might want to give consideration to just how much leg you want to show. I have been criticised for saying this before but there is a reason why Hillary Clinton and Angela Merkel always wear trouser suits. I commented on the dangers of showing a lot of leg in a previous blog here.

Prepare a Few Points

However, more important than the outfit, would it not have been a good idea to prepare a few words and even jot them down. This is probably not right for the Oscars: I can see it might have been a bit presumptuous for Colman to whip out a speech but in most other circumstances this would be a completely normal thing to do.

Reading a script is a bad idea. Unless you are trained it will be very difficult to get the inflections right. Better for most people to adlib around a few bullet points.

A Long List of Thanks is Dull and Risky

There is a particular difficulty in thanking people. It is very difficult to make a long list of people you want to thank interesting and the danger of missing people out, particularly if you haven’t prepared the list, is huge. My advice is to think long and hard before heading into an Oscar-style thank you list – ask yourself if there is a better way. Perhaps a story that illustrates how much help you needed along the way and a more general or blanket thanks – or just an expression of gratitude. It would be a lot less boring to listen to.

Shedding a Tear in Public is Good, Snivelling is Not So Good

Emotion is good in a speech but in most cultures not too much. Clearly, it can be difficult to control but it would help to think about how you want to come across before you get there. I personally hope I am never caught snivelling in front of an audience of 30 million. If you are with me I suggest in emotional settings, set yourself a clearly articulated communication ‘style goal’ and role-play it in the bathroom.

Quit With the Raspberries

Finally, call me old fashioned, but I am not in favour of blowing raspberries at the organisers who are trying to keep a long and complicated evening running on time.

 

The art of oratory

The Art of Oratory and the Attorney General

The art of oratory is an old-fashioned way of describing the skill of mastering an argument and delivering it to move an audience. And there was something old-fashioned and somewhat extraordinary about a Tory conference speech from someone I had previously never heard of.

Somehow I had missed the story about the richest MP trying to claim 49p for a pint of milk, which seems to be the only previous time Geoffrey Cox made news headlines.  After his speech, The Spectator dubbed him the most important politician you’ve never heard of, and the Mirror called him the ‘Tory Gandalf ‘.

Barnstorming Speech

The recently appointed Attorney General, Geoffrey Cox spoke for a little over 11 minutes, as the ‘warm-up’ act for the Prime Minister. He spoke without notes in a barnstorming performance that was entertaining and uplifting. It was a call to arms for an embattled Prime Minister.

As ever, I am not commenting on the politics of what Geoffrey Cox says, but feel compelled to call out the fact that he said it really well. Those of us who aspire to be really good communicators can learn a lot from watching someone who really can deliver a speech.

Here is the speech:

Speakers Notes

This is what I see in this speech.

  • Within seconds of arriving on stage, the speaker connects with his audience, with a self-effacing comment. You feel he is really talking to the people in the audience, not broadcasting.
  • Because he speaks without notes he is able to stand beside the podium not behind it. One of my colleagues, Eric Dixon, always advocates this as a way to give you a better connection with an audience.
  • He is incredibly relaxed on stage. He could be standing in his living room, not in a conference hall of hundreds with a TV audience of potentially millions.

A Big, Big Voice

  • He has an amazingly deep and loud voice. Our voices are produced by a muscle and the more you use it, the stronger it gets. Professional teachers nearly always have loud voices, I have a very loud voice, and my camera operators are always having to adjust for it. Geoffrey Cox has spent his life in courtrooms and has a big, big voice. He has also learnt (I assume learnt) to make it melodic.
  • He speaks without notes – immensely impressive.
  • He quickly gets into personal and story-telling mode.
  • He pauses as much as he speaks – he speaks slowly and gives himself lots of thinking time.
  • He articulates every word – even long difficult phrases.

A Wide Range of Tone

  • He uses light and shade. Sometimes he goes quiet, sometimes he booms, sometimes he relaxes and then he is declaiming. He uses a wide range of tones in a very short speech.
  • He is not afraid of overacting or overemphasising. There are many extremely dramatic gestures. For example, he uses his whole body, bending almost double, to emphasis his point that Britain could no longer put up with the EU because ‘the price is just too high’. It is worth noting that most of his body language is very open and even when he gets a bit ‘nasty’ for example when talking about the Labour party, he softens it with a twinkle in his eye.

I could go on. The speech was not about policy detail and it did what always works – he lifted the Brexit discussion to grand phrases ‘this great democratic mandate’, ‘we need not fear self-government’, we will ‘step out as a free independent and sovereign partner to the others’ and so on. He said a lot of sweeping things that it is difficult to disagree with but do not help with the detail of what to do about the NI border or the Galileo space project. But to be fair that was not his brief. He was asked to galvanise those at the conference to follow their leader for a noble cause. And he did.

Others have called him out as a future Tory leader but I doubt it. If he had wanted the job he would not have chosen to quote Milton. It is too old-fashioned and plays too heavily into the stereotype of a public-school-educated, born-with-a-silver-spoon, out-of-touch-with-ordinary-people Tory stereotype. It seemed to me like he was just having fun.

speech delivery tips mike butcher feature

Good speech delivery: get the tone right

Good speech delivery is not so much about the content of what you say. How often have you watched a televised debate between two people – one offering solid facts and figures but no empathy, the other oozing bonhomie backed up by nothing more than some vague platitudes ­– and found yourself involuntarily favouring the latter? One of the key speech delivery tips has to be to practise getting the right tone.

good speech delivery

Tone can matter as much if not more than the facts, numbers and logic of the argument

Good speech delivery: logic and reason are not enough

Facts are the first building-block of a good Key Message. We train clients to choose them carefully, and edit them down to punchy, easily-understood figures which provide a logical, rational basis for the argument you wish to make.  Sadly, logic and reason are sometimes simply not enough.

As every advertiser will tell you, you have to strike the right note.

Good speech delivery: Donald Trump confounds critics, Boris Johnson charms

How else to explain the success of Donald Trump in the Republican primaries! His cavalier approach to the facts has by turns outraged and irritated the political class across the United States. But his tone has resonated with a sizeable chunk of the American public.

Or take London Mayor Boris Johnson, a far more grounded politician than Donald Trump, but one who uses his personality as much as any logical argument to make his case. In their different ways, Johnson and Trump are both using the image of rebel, rather than any reasoned argument, to win over a public fed up with the political “Establishment”.

In both these cases, the facts matter little. It is the impression the speakers create that makes them effective communicators.  They are in effect selling themselves, rather than a message.  It works because people like them, or at least like the idea that they represent.

Personal charm is not something that can be completely manufactured; some people possess it naturally, others do not. But there are some things you can do to make yourself more engaging on screen or loudspeaker; they will not turn a frog into a prince, but they will help you create a bond with your audience, make them feel that they can relate to you.

Good speech delivery: tips to turn on the charm

Whatever the subject, making yourself likeable is a key part of good interview technique. And that usually means accentuating your human side.

  • Sympathy
    Express condolences and/or sympathy, however little the matter has to do with you. This has the effect of “humanising” you and is usually best done at the beginning. For example: “Let me start by acknowledging how hard it must be for people caught up in this dreadful situation…”
  • The Half-Smile
    This usually works better than a frown or artificial expression of sadness, even with the most serious of topics. It is not about making light of the subject, especially where suffering or loss are concerned; it is about making yourself convincing and accessible. Don’t overdo it, especially if public anger is involved.
  • Agree
    This is a bit of a trick: find common ground.  “Ms Smith is absolutely right to say that this situation cannot go on and I agree that the government needs to move quickly. But…” and then disagree as much as you like. It has the effect of making you sound reasonable and almost coopts the other speaker onto your side.
  • Polite
    If you are being interviewed don’t argue with the journalist. Remember, he or she is not the audience, but a means to reach the general public. However rude or annoying the interviewers may be, however much they interrupt or distort, stay calm and excruciatingly polite.  Losing your temper makes you sound weak and petulant and damages your credibility.
  • Thanks
    Always finish a speech with a smile and a “Thank You”. The last impression the viewer or listener will take away is of someone who is happy with the way it went and succeeded in making his or her case.
  • Story
    The human example, the anecdote, can be the most effective part of your argument; the facts and soundbites will be forgotten, but the story you told about John and Mary will be remembered. It makes you sound understanding and caring, relating to real people, not just balance-sheets and policies. We always stress the importance of this in our training and it does a lot to “humanise” you.
  • Voice
    Some of us are blessed with naturally appealing and friendly voices; others sound like an automated message at a call-centre. With a bit of effort you can “warm” up your voice, perhaps by making it a bit deeper, or more resonant, soften the tone. Margaret Thatcher is a famous case of a successful politician who did this.
  • Pause
    All great speech makers learn to pause for dramatic effect. We have a whole article on this coming next week but it is an important element in winning with your audience as the example videos below will demonstrate.

Don’t abandon facts, they are vital part of your armoury as there will be plenty of your audience who need them to be convinced. But always remember that in public speaking of any sort you are selling yourself and the audience has to be made to feel, consciously or sub-consciously that this is a person they want to listen to.

Good speech delivery: three videos worth studying

An example of Donald Trump’s speaking style

Here is a interesting dissection of one of Obama’s most famous speeches.

A man who coaches politicians

Picture credit: CC by Heisenbergmedia