Are your presentations more Gordon Brown than Barack Obama?

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20th Jan 2009
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Talking headsAs Obama fever grips the planet, we're reprinting Alistair Macdonald's look at how not to make a presentation, and what great leaders can learn from Gordon Brown's lacklustre style.

Gordon Brown is a glorified bean counter, as cold as the newts in my garden pond but with rather less charisma. This is not a political point but a comment on his presentation skills. His party conference speech seemed to go down reasonably well with the party faithful but it was hardly a rallying cry to the country at a time of crisis. It was what I would call a For-my-sins-I'm-an-accountant speech.

What on earth has happened to the Nye Bevans, the Manny Shinwells, or the Barbara Castles? Or indeed – in the interests of political balance – where are the orators like Churchill, Heseltine, Lloyd George or Gerald Nabarro?

Sadly, Gordon Brown, along with most of his contemporaries across the political spectrum, is part of a new breed of professional politicians drawn in sickly pastel shades.
They are no longer hewn from the coalfields of Northern England or drawn from generations of management on England's great estates. Few are even men and women who have seen action in our armed forces. These are not politicians who have honed and buffed their craft on soapboxes in bleak town squares or draughty church halls, finger-stabbing their point home in the face of savage heckling.

"Every box was ticked, every button pressed. A clinically drab masterpiece of the speech writer's art but lacking that essential ingredient... passion."

These are soundbite smoothies. There is no doubting their intellects - good degrees from great universities - but they often seem lacking in emotional intelligence. They have not been shaped by the school of hard knocks and the university of life.

Brown's speech was poorly constructed and carried all the hallmarks of a horse designed by committee – a camel. It was, in the language of political orrectness, 'inclusive'. Every box was ticked, every button pressed. A clinically drab masterpiece of the speech writer's art but lacking that essential ingredient... passion.

Like a meal made without love, it had the appeal of an old-fashioned British Rail sandwich. What we really wanted was an American club sandwich – visually attractive with layers of succulent ingredients and a refreshing taste that lingers on the palette.

But forget the content for a moment; I want to address his skills as a presenter. It is a skill that can be acquired but the fire needs to be lit if you want to set your audience alight. You need energy, enthusiasm and enjoyment.

If I had to sharpen Gordon Brown's public speaking style, I would prefer not to start from here. Unlike the Rev Tony Blair, he is a man who never appears comfortable in front of an audience and he has that strange dislocated jaw that seems to be out of sync with the words that are actually being delivered.

So here are my seven secrets of successful speechifying that would have helped Gordon become a firecracker rather than a damp squib. These are useful tips even if you are not currently running the country:

Communicate

Sounds obvious but many speakers don't. Like Gordon Brown, they forget they need to find common ground with their audience. They simply 'deliver a speech'. What Gordon Brown needed to do was draw his audience in by talking to them, not at them. His faux passion didn't really touch his listeners. Audience reaction shots showed they were merely going through the motions – as he did.

Talk to the whole audience

"What on earth has happened to the Nye Bevans, the Manny Shinwells, or the Barbara Castles? Or indeed – in the interests of political balance – where are the orators like Churchill, Heseltine, Lloyd George or Gerald Nabarro? Sadly, Gordon Brown, along with most of his contemporaries across the political spectrum, is part of a new breed of professional politicians drawn in sickly pastel shades."

Again, sounds obvious. But most speakers are not aware they have a bias to one side or the other. Gordon Brown's is to the left. No surprises there then! What this means is that those on the right of the auditorium feel excluded. They would not have felt he was talking directly to them. He needed to spread his eye-line round the room more evenly.

Use open gestures

Gordon Brown's body language was closed. His principal hand gesture had his palms facing inward which, to me, betrayed an introverted and closed personality. When his wife Sarah joined him on stage afterwards, things got worse. They actually walked backwards as if they were afraid of the audience. Compare this with the loose, easy waves of Barack Obama as he leaves the stage.

Be more humorous

Okay, I know he was speaking at a time of national crisis but there never seems to be too much wit or fun in his speeches. I rather liked his line: "This is no time for an apprentice". My word! How they must have worked on that! But it lacked the rapier thrust of Lib Dem shadow chancellor Vince Cable's description of Gordon Brown: "He's gone from Stalin to Mr Bean". You expect political speeches to employ a little barbed wit. Mind you, he didn't have much of a target. Moose-hunting, bible-thumping, skidoo-riding hockey mums make far better sport.

Be more personal

We want to know what makes the man tick. After 10 years we still know little more than that he is the prudent one-eyed man from the Manse who married rather late in life. His speeches need to draw on his own experience. The problem here mirrors other professional politicians – he has spent too much time in the Westminster hothouse and too little in the real world. Not much he can do about this now, but life experience should be a prerequisite of any aspiring politician.

Be a great storyteller

This should be at the very heart of any great speech. Almost every point should be illustrated with a carefully sharpened tale. Audiences love great storytellers because this is how we all learned as children.

Show more energy, enthusiasm and enjoyment. The three Es are the vehicles that should deliver that passion.

Alexander Macdonald LLP is a specialist consultancy and training partnership teaching better communication. Alistair has trained directors from more than 20 countries and is a member of The Professional Speakers Association.
Visit www.alexandermacdonald.co.uk for further details

For more advice on presentations you could look at some of Martin Shovel's features on the subject on TrainingZone.co.uk. Just click on the following titles:

Free thinking: Memories are made of this

Free thinking: Winning hearts & minds

Free thinking: Music to your ears

Free thinking: How to become a charismatic speaker

Free thinking: Out of the mouths of babes

Free thinking: Purposeful presentations

This feature was first published on TrainingZone.co.uk in October

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