Thursday, 11 October 2012

Miliband, Liberation, and Structure

A speech is like a presentation - it's a performance. And Ed Miliband certainly delivered that at the 2012 Labour Conference.

First impressions are key, and I was struck by the confidence in Miliband's walk onto the stage and his apparent ease.  He seemed almost liberated.  Much has been written in praise of his delivery, but let us trumpet the fact that he did not hide behind a podium.  Hugely impressive - as well as the sheer memory feat, and an example to millions of us.

So, what was there to like in his delivery?  Vocally, he could be conversational.  He made good use of inflections.  He made eye contact with every part of the audience.  His energy level was varied - but heightened at the key points, the start and close.  Physically, there were no outward displays of tension.  And he used humour - and just about handled it right.

Not all plain sailing though.  A really good speaker must ensure they adopt the appropriate body language to match their words.  Miliband's team was plain wrong to advise him to have his hand in his pocket whilst delivering key points of the speech.  This diluted the impact of his words, giving them an unintended casualness which undermined their impact.  Great for the jokes - not the serious stuff!  Like so many politicians, Miliband needed to explore his vocal range too.  There were too many chunks of his speech delivered on the same note, which became tiring and lost him impact.

But any speech or presentation is content as well as communication - both have got to be great.  So in this instance, much more could have been made of the structure of the content.  And that didn't mean being policy-heavy.  Miliband had a great line: "this is where I stand, this is who I am, this is what I believe, this is my faith", which he could have used to properly structure the speech.  But one third of the way through, he borrowed from Disraeli the idea of "one nation", which then became the speech.  It seemed highly cynical, especially as he could not properly justify why his was the only party that could create just such a nation. It lost the speech authenticity at a critical stage.  I think Miliband would have gained much more by using his "stand, believe, faith" idea as the framework for his speech, allowing us the audience to understand him and his party through that lens, Repeating those key words - stand, believe, faith - throughout the speech would have been extremely powerful. And politically powerful too, if his conclusion was that everything that has shaped him and inspires him, makes him the leader of a one nation party.

Success for a public speaker and presenter is when the audience goes away and remembers at least one thing you said.  So, Miliband succeeded - because everyone was talking about "one nation".  But he missed a trick.  Yes, the rehearsing paid off hugely.  But he could have gained much from a clearer, tighter structure.  More impact? Definitely. Less cynicism - quite possibly!

Cameron at conference 2012

David Cameron's speech to the Tory conference in 2012 showed once again the difficulty in delivering the two "c" s of public speaking - content and communication.

Content-wise, this was a very impressively structured speech.  It mixed a sober assessment of the state of  the country with an underlying positive message that said, effectively, the only way had to be up.  And this was through aspiration and providing the right social and economic climate in which aspiration can thrive.  It gave the right amount of time to each of the pillars that would do just that.  Cameron set out why he believed his party were the ones to deliver this - backing up each point clearly.  The message was simple - and therefore effective - essentially that of personal and national fulfilment. In terms of length, it was well judged.

Communication-wise, Cameron is a mix of the comfortable and uncomfortable.  He can be very effective and convincing.  He has a seriousness that at times borders on intensity, but that can work to his advantage.  His diction is excellent.  Yet he's weak on humour - he delivers it almost as an apology, as if - in this speech - he was coerced into it.  Number one rule in a speech and a presentation - don't use humour unless you are absolutely certain you can pull it off.

For a speech which essentially sought to raise morale, Cameron's initial delivery was markedly under-energised, apologetic almost.  He seemed inhibited, tense, staring fixedly at the cameras before, eventually, making eye contact with his audience. Maybe the audience were already in thrall.  But for the television viewer, he had yet to draw us in to what he was saying,  In a strange way, he over-compensated in the last third of the speech: his energy was at times too much, so that he rushed key high points of the speech, losing impact as a result, almost as if he was in a hurry to get to the final punchline.  It felt a strange and uncomfortable imbalance.  As uncomfortable as the final, open embrace gesture was to watch.

Cameron's performance underlined that it really isn't as common as you might think to find great content matched by great delivery.  So, what's the key?  Rehearsal is crucially important - not just in drafting, re-drafting, and re-drafting the text again, but also in the delivery.  And when you are rehearsing the delivery, you shouldn't be tempted to be something that you are not.  In Cameron's case, he's great looking serious -  so don't have him cracking jokes.  He's a little awkward physically - so keep his body language as neutral as possible and avoid overt gestures: they look scripted and sometimes embarrassing, especially if you finish with one. Above all, know which are the key lines in your speech or presentation that you want your audience to recall - and make sure they are heard properly.