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Speech therapy

The Prime Minister's performance at the recent Conservative Party conference will have given chills to anyone whose work entails public speaking. Whatever your political leanings, seeing someone struggle through what looked like a physically painful experience was uncomfortable viewing.

One bright spot for her was the ability to use humour at the right moments. Suffering a persistent coughing fit, the Prime Minister was thrown a lifeline when Cabinet colleague Philip Hammond passed her a throat lozenge. Her immediate, and presumably ad-libbed, joke about the Chancellor giving something away free lightened the atmosphere.

We often get asked to write speeches and provide advice on public speaking, and yesterday’s thwarted efforts by Theresa May got us thinking about some of our favourite speeches and the principles behind why they worked.

Martin Luther King Jr’s most famous address in 1963 set out a humanitarian vision of hope against a backdrop of injustice. His repetition of the “I have a dream” phrase and the imagery conjured up by his words created a sense of a hard-won goal that might just be within reach. Emmeline Pankhurst’s 1913 promise of accepting “freedom or death” in her pursuit of women’s enfranchisement was equally powerful.

But passion only works if the subject on the speaker’s lips warrants it. Sometimes empathy is the answer.

King George VI’s radio broadcast announcing the imminence of World War II in 1939 was one such time.  The monarch’s battle with a speech impediment, combined with the language used in the address, put common ground between him and his audience, enabling him, as he said to the nation, to “cross your threshold and speak to you myself“.

Choosing the right tone is one thing, but are there any sure-fire techniques that internal communicators can deploy when helping leaders with their speeches?

In a 2016 interview, actor Tom Hanks was asked to give advice to children who were learning lines for their school play. His top tip was to know your lines like your favourite song, so that you don’t even have to think about them. That way, he said, a performance can be really authentic.

The same is true for public speakers. Whatever the subject matter and the style, a speech needs to feel natural, and that can only be achieved if the words on the page are ones the speaker would use themselves.

Before we, as internal comms people, can write jokes or high-flown rhetoric for our stakeholders, we need to understand and adopt their tone of voice, their idioms, even the patterns in which they tend to speak. There’s nothing wrong with adapting these as the occasion demands, but asking your speaker to depart from them completely is never going to work. Spend time with your stakeholder, listen to them in conversation. The more clearly you can hear their voice in your mind as you write for them, the more smoothly they will deliver the end result. Plus, it’s much easier for the speaker to commit their lines to memory and abandon their notes when the words are truly theirs, even if they haven’t written them.

Most of us aren’t orators of Ciceronian ability, and neither are the business leaders we write for. Nor can we always insulate against external factors like sore throats, audience interruptions and dodgy stage sets (as Mrs May’s speechwriters are no doubt telling themselves). What we can, and should, do is strive for authenticity in every word and phrase we write.

A speaker doesn’t have to be funny or impassioned to be effective, but they do have to be themselves.