Presenting to crowds: what Party Conference season can teach us

I have no doubt that you will, like me, have been transfixed by what can only be described as the annual televisual feast that is Party Conference season.

Forget Line of Duty or Game of Thrones, the past few weeks have offered wall to wall, hour upon hour coverage of people sitting in soulless conference centres, watching scenery malfunctions and giving the appearance of listening to other people, agreeing with them and pretending they don’t utterly despise them. As one journalist was reported to have been overheard saying to another, ‘if we make the coverage even more boring than last year we won’t have to do this again.’

So what can we learn from Bournemouth, Brighton and Manchester? One thing is for certain, if you have to deliver a long platform speech there are certain things you need to remember assuming, that is, you audience is not predisposed to delivering you a two-and-a-half-minute standing ovation merely for getting through your speech.

For the Lib Dems, Vince Cable roots himself to the podium, speaks at an even pace and concentrates most of this body language into the waggle of his head. He rarely smiles, in stark contrast to his predecessor who bubbles away with energy and passion, often abandoning the podium to bound around the stage like a spaniel.

Meanwhile, Jeremy Corbyn is ‘living the dream’ of having a personality cult around him. Leadership has changed his style too. Never happier than when he is tub thumping to a crowd, he has learned to tone down the agit-prop element, and now delivers a far more polished act on the political stage.

Theresa May has a reduced confidence from last year and yet a more Prime Ministerial tone (despite a sore throat upon which far too much has been heaped), not least in her decent oratory in Florence. Hers is a difficult path to tread given the self-inflicted wound of the general election and it wasn’t helped one bit by the vocal delivery, the ‘comedy’ P45 moment and the scenery malfunction (someone who really needs a P45).

Our lesson is that that when we are speaking to a larger group than the normal client-training event there are certain rules to follow.

  1. Speak to your crowd. This essentially means that you need to know who your audience are. Make it personal, make it relevant and make it for them. Underestimate them at your peril – as a former Prime Minister did with the Women’s Institute.
  2. Deliver your message in a manner that is true to you yet retains an element of gravitas and presence whatever happens. Your audience will pick up on your every move and how you present yourself and that will influence how you are remembered.
  3. Use rhetoric – it works. As Professor Max Atkinson notes, ‘to dismiss or denigrate rhetoric as something only for Presidents and Prime Ministers is to ignore the fact that its structures and devices provide an infinitely adaptable tool-kit for packaging messages in a simple and striking way that audiences can grasp immediately’. Surely something worth considering for your next practice group conference?

When Ken Livingstone said that “public speakers are born, not made” and that “people should not worry about technique, but just be themselves”, he was, in effect, saying: “Leave persuasive power in the hands of those of us who happen to have had the good fortune to speak this way naturally.” Be yourself by all means, but don’t think these delightful devices are only for the few – they are for the many.

In 1984, Ann Brennan delivered a speech to the (then) SDP Conference equipped with a script that ‘bristled with contrasts, three-part lists and rhetorical questions. She generated so much applause that she only managed to deliver about two thirds of it before running out of time.’ Never heard of her? Neither had they. She learnt the techniques, sought help and practiced her craft like so many of us can and in so doing, wiped the floor with the few.

Luan de Burgh of the de Burgh Group is a professional public speaker and presentation coach. More of his articles can be read here