Say what you mean and mean what you say

I don’t know many people who have been gripped by the recent round of political party conferences in the UK.   Despite the effort that goes into staging these events and the forensic analysis by commentators, political conferences are generally dismissed as being high on theatre and low on substance.  However, I must admit to taking an interest this year from a professional point of view – it is the presentation skills on display at these conferences that fascinates me.

The two main party leaders, Cameron, and Milliband (sorry, I didn’t watch Clegg), have more or less mastered the basics of good presentation skills (no doubt with a lot of help from advisors, trainers and experts in the field).   In fact the format and style of their delivery is so similar that there is little to differentiate them.   Both speeches were evidently well prepared ; there was a coherent structure which included repetition of the key messages (‘One nation’ for Milliband and ‘Aspiration’ for Cameron).   Each speaker included some sort of personal anecdote to show the softer more human side of their character.  And both finished with a clear ‘call to action’ to demonstrate inspirational leadership  (Milliband:   ‘A Britain we rebuild together!’;  Cameron: ‘Let’s get out there and do it!”).

Both leaders looked relatively at ease and authoritative.  Their speeches were polished and obviously well-rehearsed but, so as not to appear too scripted, were littered with conversational touches.  For example both Cameron and Milliband seem to favour “y’know”  as a way of showing informality and mateyness.

So  Cameron and Milliband both did a thoroughly good job?  Well, yes to an extent.  But there were two problems for the party leaders.

First, neither appeared to be clear about who their audience was.  Ostensibly the speeches were directed at the party faithful in the auditorium waiting to be reassured and inspired to support their leader.  But as Radio 4’s Carolyn Quinn said to Michael Gove yesterday ‘at the end of the day, it’s the public’s reaction to (Cameron’s) speech that really matters’.  One of the rules of successful presenting is to know your audience and respond to their needs.   Unfortunately the party leaders were attempting to speak to two quite different audiences – their party and the electorate.  Trying to keep both happy detracts from the overall impact.

And why, despite the polished performances, did these high profile presentations fail to impress the general public?  The problem is that politicians are not widely trusted.  Both Cameron and Milliband are dealing with an electorate that is losing its respect and confidence in politicians who are known to say one thing and do another.  One fantastic speech is not going to change that.  Every good leader knows that demonstrating competence, honesty and integrity can only be achieved by your actions over time.  Our political leaders have a bit more work to do before what they say can be believed.

Get JPA’s top tips on delivering the perfect presentation here. Top Ten Tips for Presenting

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