Speech of the Month, February 2020 - Tony Blair

Check out Blair's pre-speech storytelling warm-up. Would you dare to do similar?

Speech of the Month, February 2020 - Tony Blair

What? OMG! It’s February 2020’s Speech of the Month and she’s not gone for Joaquin Phoenix? Is she crazy?

Possibly. I was probably as moved as anyone and, let’s face it, shamed by Phoenix’s Oscar acceptance speech. I mindlessly pour semi skimmed on my Weetabix most mornings without ever questioning why I feel it’s ok for me to consume the milk that’s meant for a calf. The speech was thought-provoking and moving. But while it posed a strong question about why any person or species feels it has the ‘right to dominate, control and use and exploit another with impunity,’ it didn’t make any suggestions for change. So there was lots of pathos but no logos, and that's a problem for me. And frustratingly it's a recurring one when people from the Arts make speeches. They major on emotion and forget about solutions. 

One person who also spoke publicly this month and had solutions - indeed that was his whole reason for speaking - was Tony Blair. That’s why I’m going to focus on the speech he made to mark the 120th anniversary of the founding of the Labour Party, picking out some excellent techniques that we can all use in our work presentations.

Be your own warm-up act

Before Blair gets into his speech proper he tells a couple of amusing stories that are linked to his first (unsuccessful) political outing in Beaconsfield in 1982. Through telling these stories we – people who’ve never been PM and won three general elections – are able to connect with Blair because the vast majority of us know what it feels like to bring a parent along to something that’s important to us and have them innocently sabotage it by just being themselves and spouting their opinions, and most of us have also experienced that dawning and shocking realisation that we, our background, views, life experiences etc are completely alien to another human. These stories get a laugh, which raises Blair’s ethos appeal and positions him well to start his actual speech. 

Stories are a brilliant and quite easy way to connect with an audience, so always think if you can kick off with a good story that links to the message of your speech. And if that story is set outside the world of work than, usually, so much the better. This allows the audience to see you as something more familiar and human than the CEO of a company or the director of a department. 

What’s so remarkable about Blair is how comfortable he is speaking off the cuff to such a large audience. I think most of us, in such a setting, would cling to our scripts. But maybe, just maybe, he’d planned to tell those stories days before the speech. It’s said that the best impromptu speeches have had the most preparation!

Link your intro to the event and your speech purpose

So after giving us his warm-up stories, Blair says, “I thought hard about taking stock on the Labour Party’s 120th anniversary. It’s not as if my advice is particularly welcomed by today’s party. But then it occurred to me that there are actually only two people born in the last 120 years who have won an election for Labour. And alas, Harold Wilson is long gone.”

It’s really important that when giving a speech at an event you mention that event early. If you don’t, you can appear ungracious or it can look like your speech was one you already had and wasn’t crafted specially for that particular event, which looks lazy. And it’s also vital that your intro completely sets up your topic. So Blair goes on to explain how he thinks Labour can win more elections. The learning point for us is that he manages to mention the event and set out the purpose of his speech quickly and seamlessly.  

Make the solutions easy to digest

Having explored why Labour is poor at being elected and why this is a problem for the country, Blair moves into his ‘recommendations’ gear. He says, ‘We can debate the myriad of detailed policies on social care, infrastructure, north v south, education, social media etc and all of them matter. But there are three over-arching, strategic challenges within the answers to all of these must be found.’ And then he tells us what these three challenges are. And, importantly, he names his numbers, ‘First, secondly, and finally.’ 

By giving us a count-down list, it makes it easier for the audience - who doesn't have a transcript of his speech - to digest the points. But this simple and very effective technique happens too rarely in business presentations. The count-down list doesn’t have to be done by using numbers. You can achieve the same count-down clarity by using questions or an acronym or, better still, apronym. Just make sure you keep the information separate and distinct.   

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