Public speaking to change minds – lessons from the world of politics

This is a guest post from Rob Marchant, a key member of Tony Blair’s campaign team at Labour Party head office between 1998-2002.  Rob is founder of Barcelona Green, a startup aimed at climate change challenges.  He examines some political examples of public speaking from the US and the UK.

Loved or loathed they might be by the public at large, most of the best-known examples of public speaking come from politicians.  They certainly get more practice than most of us – after all, they do it for a living – and a great speech, such as “Ich bin ein Berliner” or “We will fight them on the beaches”, can move even the most cynical of commentators.  Although we can’t all be a Kennedy or a Churchill, we can still learn from such seasoned speechmakers as we look to lead others.

There are many pedestrian reasons why we might give a speech: to thank people, to raise a point or to merely deliver information, like the figures from an annual report.  However, a good political speech changes minds.  You will never turn people’s beliefs on their heads – no speech can do that – but by gently coaxing the listener you can often win the day on a single issue.  Here are some examples from well-known politicians on winning speeches:

Home in on your one “winnable” resistance point.  Every year, Tony Blair’s most important speech as Prime Minister would be to the Labour Party Conference in September.  Blair would spend most of the speech building up rapport and trust with his audience.  And then, once he had them eating out of his hand towards the end of the speech, he would drop in a single but controversial proposition, and they would give him the benefit of the doubt.  They never saw him coming.

Bond with the audience.  Bill Clinton, a true master of empathy, can win the hearts of a potentially hostile audience immediately by a choice phrase, signalling that he is “one of them”.  In his famous 1994 “you need to turn the light on in Virginia” speech, he starts by affectionately name-checking the local party dignitaries.  Then, as he hits the most controversial passage, he starts it with, “I am a Southerner.  I love this part of the country”.  No matter that Virginia is over a thousand miles from his home in Arkansas, and no matter what he says now, the audience are with him.

Passion wins, especially at the end.  When it comes to passion, Martin Luther King’s training as a Southern Baptist minister gave him a head start over most of us – at times his iconic “I have a dream” speech reads like gospel singing.  If you believe it, they’ll believe it.  And who has ever written a better ending to a speech than “Free at last! Free at last! thank God Almighty, we are free at last!”

Strong vocal delivery is important for credibility.  Margaret Thatcher, although perhaps not naturally a gifted orator, made the best of what she had.  She even had special voice training to lower the pitch of her speaking voice – she felt that her higher-pitched, woman’s voice lacked gravitas.  Her political persona as the “Iron Lady” was entirely consistent with her somewhat slow and deliberate speaking style, giving the impression that she was not to be deterred or trifled with.  Perhaps her best was the 1980 conference speech which subtly ridiculed her Cabinet critics for their vacillation and political “U-turns”, while contrasting her own strength of purpose:  “You turn if you want to.  The lady’s not for turning!”  With that, Thatcher’s place as party leader was safe for the next ten years.

Be yourself – although you can and must practice, you can’t be someone you’re not.  People move others most when they speak from the heart.  Humour can be devastating – or devastatingly bad, if you get it wrong.  Prime Minister Harold Wilson was a down-to-earth but rather witty speaker.  However, he didn’t dare introduce humour in his speeches until he was confident enough of his delivery – that is, when he became Prime Minister.

Don’t be heavy-handed or negative about rivals.  Audiences will usually react against this and it cheapens your message.  However, bashing the opposition in an audience is usually a crowd-pleaser, and unites you with the audience around the common enemy.  Learn from the pols: if you’re a Republican, bash the Democrats.  If you’re a businessperson, bash the competition.

Coin a phrase and catch the moment – Speeches have often assured their own place in history, in part, by exactly reflecting the zeitgeist: see Macmillan’s “wind of change” speech, about the end of empire in Africa, or Reagan’s “tear down this wall” about the anticipated end of the Cold War.  Even better, use a mantra which will be repeated: Barack Obama’s stroke of genius with “Yes, we can” made him and his message instantly memorable.

Not all speeches are political in nature but most, to some extent, look to influence opinion.  We might never have the charisma of the political heavyweights: but we can all be warm and confident, and take people with us.

Rob Marchant runs a consultancy business in marketing, web communications and management, and is currently raising funds for his first startup, Barcelona Green.  His career spans management consultancy, investment banking and technology, as well as having been a key member of Tony Blair’s campaign team at UK Labour Party headquarters during 1998-2002.  In 2000 he travelled to Washington to meet the campaign teams of Al Gore and the Democratic National Committee.  He is also an experienced public speaker and facilitator who has stood for the Parliament in the UK.   Originally educated at Oxford, he has an MSc in Economics from the University of London and gained his Global Executive MBA from IESE in 2004.

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