Tips for public speaking from political party conferences: Keep sentences short and – if offered an autocue – use it

Outgoing leaders have the freedom to be honest, but speeches are a highly political affair for incumbents (Source: Getty)
At least I don’t have to worry about [Cherie] running off with the bloke next door,” said Tony Blair in his valedictory speech at the 2006 Labour Party Conference. Combining humour with an honesty about his differences with Gordon Brown, the performance was heralded as one of the greatest in British politics, and received a seven minute standing ovation. Outgoing leaders can afford to be open about their tenure. But for incumbents and aspirants, delivering a conference speech is a highly political affair. Here are a few pointers for those in business to take away.

KNOW YOUR THEME

After his speech on Monday to the Conservative Party conference, George Osborne was mocked for using the term “build” 25 times. His repetition may seem unsubtle, but modelling a speech around clear themes (in Osborne’s case, his ambition to build a northern powerhouse and announce the National Infrastructure Commission) is essential if a message is to resonate.
Lists are much less effective. “One possible strength of Jeremy Corbyn’s speech was that it was folksy, which is part of his unspun appeal,” notes Weber Shandwick’s David Skelton. “But there was no overarching theme. He had a short time to define himself to the outside world, and that small window is all businesses have to pitch to potential clients.”

CHOOSE YOUR PITCH

Research by UCLA acoustic scientist Rosario Signorello found that political leaders tend to lower their pitch when speaking to other leaders, but vary it at public events. Nigel Farage is often singled out for his charisma and ability to engage audiences, and research by Clearwater Advisors has shown that his pitch reaches high levels and is very modulated.
However, varied pitch is not always a winner. UK psychologist Sue Lovegrove told the BBC that “lower voices tend to have an aura of authority” and that a high pitch “sounds emotional and less trustworthy.” Indeed, the Clearwater Advisors study found that Nicola Sturgeon – another popular figure – exhibits much less variation. Speakers should vary their pitch or keep it low depending on the impression they want to make.

RHETORICAL FLOURISHES

As Emilie L’Hote observes in Identity, Narrative and Metaphor, party conference speeches tend to have “a higher frequency and diversity of political metaphors, shorter sentences, stronger register variations, and a stronger reliance on literary and popular references.”
Even in business oratory, keeping sentences short and interspersing complex details with popular references is vital to sustaining your audience’s interest. “Sometimes a familiar phrase, image, song or creative cultural element – something universal to your audience – can make your point quickly, and convey camaraderie more effectively than your own words,” Rene Shimada Siegel, founder of High Tech Connect, told the Inc. At his debut at the Lib Dem conference this year, Tim Farron repeatedly drew upon his personal history to explain his political stance.

DON’T FEAR PROMPTS

Fierce criticism issued last year, after Ed Miliband spurned an autocue in his pursuit of authenticity. Prompts are an important part of speech preparation, and even the relaxed Jeremy Corbyn opted for textual aids this year. Far from allowing a presenter to appear more authentic, corporate presentations coach Jerry Weissman told the Harvard Business Review that learning a speech off by heart forces the speaker “to stay connected to the text and disconnected from the audience”. Support from powerpoint slides and bullet points on flashcards may disengage you momentarily, but it will ensure your message will remain clear.

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