Speech of the Month, March 2019 - Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez

The public speaking techniques we can all take from Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez's 'This is Serious' speech

Speech of the Month, March 2019 - Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez

I’ll confess, I’ve struggled to find a stand out speech for March. We’ve had some memorable oratory – who will forget Jacinda Ardern pledging to never publicly say the name of the killer who perpetrated the attacks on Christchurch mosques? But that wasn’t exactly a speech. It was a strong, defiant and uniting statement. And even if it were a speech, I’d feel uncomfortable dissecting an address that had been borne out of such an appalling atrocity. 

Therefore, I’m turning my attention to a speech Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez gave on 27 March decrying the Senate for blocking a motion to take up the Green New Deal. It’s an impassioned address - she’s clearly very narked off! – so what’s impressive is that she’s still able to put over a clear, articulate case. Something a lot of us struggle to do when we’re upset.   

There’s a lot she does well (possibly innately) that many speakers don't do, so I'm going to point these out. If you haven’t seen / heard the speech, do so now. 

Fill the space

In watching the video you may feel that Ocasio-Cortez’s gestures are rather large, a tad panto even. But what she’s doing is filling an incredibly big space with her body. Her primary audience is members in the chamber, and they could be sitting anything up to 100 meters away. If she doesn’t make herself big to them, she’s going to appear dot-like; and dots don’t make huge impressions. 

I appreciate that British people in particular struggle with gestures when public speaking. One of the most common questions I’m asked when I give group workshops is, ‘What should I do with my arms?’ And I understand why. When we’re presenting, our arms suddenly feel awkward and, once we’ve clicked on the next slide, pretty extraneous. We’d like them to disappear.

The best advice I can give you is to gesture naturally. Don't try to choerograph any. Some of us are enthusiastic gesticulators while others barely lift a finger (unmetaphorically speaking) and that’s fine. All I’d say is grow the gestures that you do make when you’re speaking in large spaces. So while a forward thrusting double-handed gesture that’s 30cms in front of your chest might emphasis the word ‘gravity’ perfectly as you say it in a small meeting room, once you’re in that big meeting room, conference hall or chamber, the same gesture now needs to be 50cms away from the body for it to have the same impact. 

So what if you fluff a line?

We all fluff words, especially if we’re speaking off the cuff. Ocasio-Cortez does in her speech, “If we do not ascend to, to, to…” But what she doesn’t do is look phased by it. It interrupts her flow but it doesn’t undermine her confidence and determination to say what she wants to say. She simply puts her head down, waits for the right word to come, and then she’s off again. 

But so many people don’t do that. For right or wrong – and I’d say largely wrong – in Britain we seem to feel that any sort of speech hesitation is a failing. But it’s not a failing, it’s just what happens when you’re not working from a script. I think it’s interesting too that we will forgive verbal hesitations in those who come from super-privileged backgrounds, Boris Johnson for example, because their accent tells us that they’re educated and powerful so what they have to say is worthy of hearing, whereas if a working class woman from Gateshead spoke with the same hesitations, they may reinforce a perception that she’s not very bright and / or sure of her message. 

So please, if you fluff a word get out of the habit of panicking about it. Don’t shake your head, all annoyed with yourself. Don’t jump to your next point because you feel you’ve ruined the one you’re talking about. Don’t apologise. Just put your head down, breathe, and the word will appear.    

Use an accessible analogy or metaphor to harness your arguments

Ocasio-Cortez accuses her opponents of not wanting to address the problems of climate change because it’s going to be expensive. But she claims it’s only going to be expensive because steps weren’t taken 30, 40 years ago, and she compares this to a human who hasn’t looked after their body. So if someone had eaten healthily for decades and done some regular exercise they probably wouldn’t have had that stroke which, in the USA, is probably a very expensive thing to have, if you’re lucky enough to survive it. Her analogy is very simple, but that’s the beauty of it. Everyone can understand it. 

When Margaret Thatcher compared the management of the economy with that of running a household - “Any woman who understands the problems of running a home will be nearer to understanding the problems of running a country” - she spoke to swathes of the electorate. Now economists will tell us that running a country bears little correlation to prudent housewifery, but Thatcher’s metaphor was a compelling one. It was memorable, it resonated, and it worked. 

So if you have complex ideas to get across and / or if you have a mixed-knowledge audience to present them to, then always consider using an accessible analogy.

If you enjoyed this article, then try some of my other blog posts.

And if you feel you or your staff would benefit from stronger intros and the ability to move audience, then get in touch. 

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