Love him or hate him, Labour leader Ed Miliband’s keynote speech to his party’s conference in Manchester this week is an interesting, instructive and, it has to be said, fairly lengthy watch for students of public speaking and presentational skills. If you’ve got one hour, four minutes and 48 seconds to spare you can watch his address here and make up your own mind. But if you haven’t (or as a true blue Tory voter the very thought of spending that long with him makes your skin creep) then read my conference speech guide – not to the politics of it but the mechanics.
I’ve divided his address into the five components that make up any speech from the grandest to the most modest :
1 the speaker
2 the spoken (words)
3 the spoken to (audience)
4 the unspoken (body language)
5 the place spoken (venue)
In this post I’m going to explore the first component – the speaker. Future posts will cover the other four.
As a speaker the key to a successful presentation is knowing from the outset exactly what you want that presentation to achieve and never losing sight of your objectives through the planning and delivery phases. As a trainer I recommend speakers distil their purpose into a just few lines as the very first step. Watching Ed Miliband I’d stake my house on his early notes reading something like this: “show the audience I’m an ordinary kind of guy, share with them my vision for Britain and tell them how together we can make that happen.” As a politician he almost certainly couldn’t resist also scribbling “and rubbish the Coalition, especially the Conservative half or it.”
Know thine audience is the phrase most often associated with public speaking. But there should be a second mantra – know thyself. Self knowledge as a speaker is vital. You need to know your strengths and weaknesses. Where the comfort zone ends and the discomfort zone begins. How nervousness manifests itself (and all presenters get nervous however relaxed they may appear). Like top athletes the very best speakers frequently push themselves beyond their normal limits. It’s how they improve. By speaking entirely without notes Miliband was pushing himself to the limits of his endurance. Doing the oratorial equivalent of a Mo Farah (whose name, incidentally, he mentioned in an effort to associate himself with the winning Olympic team). In delivering his address without even the safety net of an auto-cue he was again serving his purpose. He wanted us to think “hey a guy who can do that can run the country.”
As a speaker it’s also vital to know your relationship with the audience. Is your stock, so to speak, high or low? Do they like you or hate you? You’re selling them something – in Miliband’s case a promise to make Britain great again in return for our votes – so you better know how hard a sell you’ve got on your hands. The Labour leader clearly understood his stock was on the low side, not at the conference itself so much as among the wider public audience. Confronted with this tension between themselves and their audience speakers have two options: ignore it and hope it’ll go away; or concede there’s tension and do something to reduce it. Sensibly Miliband chose the second. “I understand why you voted for Cameron,” he declared before moving on to why we should no longer trust the Prime Minister but trust him instead.
You’re havin’ a laugh
Humour is an important part of any speech. Important but not essential. Not essential because some people are uncomfortable with humour – speakers and audiences alike. And some subjects are simply no laughing matter. Done right, however, humour can lift a speech. Give both the audience and the speaker a moment to relax. Act as a delicate counterpoint to a more profound moment. Provide punctuation. Give people a chance to shift buttocks or open a Murray mint without drawing attention to themselves. Done wrong humour can kill a speech stone dead. Alienate an audience. Overdone and it can tend to trivialise a speech and overshadow the content.
By making himself the butt of his jokes Miliband avoided giving offence. And mostly the laughs he got appeared genuine (but then in a hall full of acolytes I’d be surprised if they didn’t) although occasionally there was a momentary disconnect between punch line and laugh which made the smile on the Labour leader’s face a tad strained. My advice is to move on swiftly if the anticipated response isn’t forthcoming.
More importantly his self deprecating humour helped serve his purpose: it was designed to show the audience (especially the overwhelming majority of us beyond the conference walls) that he was our kind of guy. Odd looking perhaps. A bit like the bloke off Wallace and Gromit maybe. But warm and friendly nonetheless. The friendly bit is crucial to politicians. They know we don’t trust them. And because we don’t trust them they know we don’t like them. But they also know that human nature dictates this behavioural formula works the other way round and if we like them we’ll trust them. So politicians work hard to make themselves likeable. Hence the humour and the frequent references to family history in the Miliband speech.
Richard Uridge coaches public speakers and runs presentational skills workshops. He hasn’t trained Ed Miliband. And even if he had he’d be contractually obliged to say he hadn’t (but he really hasn’t)! He’s not a bad speaker himself. Not the best. But then Sir Alex Ferguson wasn’t the best footballer. If you’d like him (Richie that is not Fergie) to train you or your colleagues or give a speech then you can get in touch by sending him an email firstname.lastname@example.org