Speech of the Month, August 2019 - Elizabeth Warren

The presentation jewels we can learn from Elizabeth Warren

Speech of the Month, August 2019 - Elizabeth Warren

While August has been a sleepy month for political speeches in the UK, in the US it’s been a month of lively rhetoric as presidential hopefuls have toured the country, speaking at rallies and on TV debate shows. One candidate who’s been grabbing a lot of attention with her presentation style is Senator Elizabeth Warren. Check out the video below that identifies where her oratory strengths lie:

I want to discuss two of these identified strenghs in more detail:

Dress to connect

Usually I tell my public speaking clients to dress in something that makes them feel good, and that they can breathe in. But actually, is what makes you feel good missing the point? 

A strong ethos appeal enables a speaker to connect with their audience. And one of the elements that makes up ethos appeal is the audience feeling that you are one of it, that you’re like them. And what simpler way is there to make them feel that you are one of them than to dress in the way they do. Admittedly, this is easier to do when your audience is narrowly defined. So if I were talking to a group of new mothers about how to wean their babies, wearing some casual trousers and a nice T-shirt would be the way to go. I’d avoid a baby puke stain on the T, one can try too hard. But if I were to turn up in a pinstripe suit with Louboutin heels then the mums are not going to feel that I’m one of them. They might admire me. But they won’t think I’m like them. They’ll doubt that a woman dressed in such a swanky manner has ever blitzed her own child’s sweet potato puree. And once an audience doubts a speaker, it’s unlikely to be persuaded by him or her.

But when your audience is super-broad then how can you dress for it? What possible outfit could make Beatrice the barrister, Bahim the bus driver and Bob the builder see themselves reflected in you? The answer is none. You can’t possibly dress the way of such a diverse group. But what you can do is make sure you don’t repel such a mixed audience by what you put on your back. And this is what Elizabeth Warren does brilliantly. She scales down her clothing to such an extent that it becomes nothing to talk about. Who could be upset or offended by a plain white shirt? Her look makes Angela Merkle’s uniform trouser suit seem comparatively fussy! And that takes some doing. 

But besides the fact that her outfit is highly inclusive (on the grounds that it couldn’t exclude) it also possesses another benefit; it leaves the audience with nothing else to look at than the speaker’s face and gestures. Her face and its features suddenly come into sharp focus and because of that we cannot help but tune into her message. The outfit does not distract. Something Theresa May would have done well to have considered when she put on her ‘Uncle Bulgaria’ suit.     

Gesture with abandon

Elizabeth Warren might be slight in stature but that doesn’t stop her taking up a lot of space. With her kicky legs and her wide, punchy arms, she’s the antitheses of self-consciousness. She appears so happy to be watched and, because of that, the audience is more than happy to watch her.

It’s a truth that people who make larger gestures are evaluated has having high confidence – and of course we want our leaders to have high confidence – and it’s also a fact that men, in general, make larger gestures than women when speaking. So what can you do if you’re not someone who naturally gestures in a big way? You can fake it, but faking big gestures can feel really awkward for the speaker. And no audience wants to listen to an awkward-looking presenter. So how can the gesture-shy speaker get to a place where she is happy to fill and own a stage?

Firstly, when presenting, only make a gesture if it feels right. If you don’t feel compelled to make a gesture from an almost innate place, then don’t. But do grow a natural gesture so it fills the venue you’re in. And the way you get comfortable with that level of ‘bigness’ is by playing around with gestures at home.

So in the comfort of your kitchen dream up a scenario that would make a character in it want to throw their arms around wildly, and then be that character living that moment. For instance, you could imagine you’re a hopping-mad Italian housewife who’s tearing a strip off her husband because he’s tucked into the tiramisu she made that morning for the family Sunday lunch that's happening in an hour's time. What is she going to do? What will people eat for pudding? All the shops are closed! Why’s he such a pig? Why did she ever marry him? Her mother told her not to... Let your imagination run riot. Have fun with it. Play like a child. But most importantly feel your gestures free up and grow as you play. 

Now take this outside of the safety of your own kitchen or bedroom. Make your gestures 10% larger than normal as you interact with people during the first week, and then 20% bigger during meetings as you move into week 2. And then consider if you were speaking in a large hall, how big they might need to be. Always practice is a safe place, but bring the scale of that safe play bit by bit to real world situations. 

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

And if you feel you or your staff would benefit from connecting better with audiences, then get in touch

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“Emma has a really original approach to delivering effective programmes of personal development. Her grounded, practical approach pays immediate dividends. I have commissioned her to lead programmes to help middle managers develop their personal presentation styles, both written and oral. The programmes have been fun and effective; and the messages stick!”

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