What could schools teach politicians about public-speaking and debating skills?
It may seem strange to be writing about the public-speaking skills of people in high places, some of whom have had the great benefit of an elite public-school education.
But, watching the recent and sometimes dismal performance of some of our leaders and politicians in interviews, electioneering speeches and on BBC’s Question Time, I couldn’t help feeling that a little strategic coaching might help them up their game.
So, for those of our politicians who seem to overlook even the basics, here are some tips:
1. Answer the question
If we can teach GCSE candidates to do this, then surely politicians can manage to respond to questions that the electorate wants answered. Be relevant, and make sure you don’t drift off-topic.
2. Don’t interrupt
Learning to listen is absolutely vital. People want to be listened to by those they elect. It’s no accident that schools teach and assess speaking and listening skills. Constant bickering and speaking over the opposition really isn’t a good look.
3. Breathe between points to avoid sounding rushed
Obviously, politicians get nervous...and they want to hold the floor...and even a micropause can allow the opposition in. But pauses can be powerful.
4. Don’t bumble
What’s excusable – and possibly even quite cute – in an excitable school child is embarrassing in a leading politician. Clarity and coherence help to get the message across much more effectively. If you get stuck, it’s often a good idea to pause and collect your thoughts before carrying on.
5. Don’t hector your audience
Your audience will follow you as long as they don’t feel got at. Rhetorical questions are a good device, but in constant succession they become monotonously off-putting for anyone but the converted. Variety of tone and syntax is necessary to sustain commitment.
6. Consider your use of gesture
Avoid looking like a windmill. It’s very distracting and detracts from your message (look up the YouTube clip of Boris Johnson on the Irish border). Constant pointing is quite patronising. And right-index-finger circle-waving to emphasise a point, which seems to be rather fashionable at the moment, is seriously irritating.
7. Don’t offend or insult your audience or electorate
Former prime minister Gordon Brown learned very quickly that people could still hear him when he had finished his address. Assuming your microphone is switched off is never a safe bet.
8. Be aware that the electorate has been following everything you do and say
All politicians, whether they are in power or whether they aspire to the top roles, should be aware of the need to treat potential voters with respect. A form of words denigrating the dress of a group of women doesn’t go down well in the public arena.
For politicians, the trouble with some newspaper columns is that they are no longer just chip paper. YouTube and Google retain strong traces of your words, and other people's reactions to them.
9. It always helps to have something to say about the issues
It’s noticeable how much more engaged an audience is when the issues are discussed and the in-fighting left behind. The feedback to competitors from Youth Speaks judges often reminds the young participants of the importance of substance.
10. Be temperate, and avoid aggressive language
Politicians need to set an example. The English language is rich enough to supply words that are more appropriate and accurate to the context. It’s a matter of great sadness and embarrassment that MPs – and female MPs in particular – have been on the receiving end of threats via social media. The suspicion that elected politicians have been driven out by such unpleasantness is deeply unsettling.
No doubt my expert colleagues who regularly field trophy-winning teams of public speakers could weigh in with some even better advice. But, from my observations, these 10 tips are a crib sheet that could make or break a party’s engagement with the voting public.
Who knows, they might even up their game sufficiently to encourage the “don’t knows”, the disenchanted and the first-time voters to turn out on election day.
Yvonne Williams is head of English and drama at a school in the South of England