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.
In a way, these digital digs are a backhanded acknowledgement 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.
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 keywords 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 playback 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 videotape 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
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?