Speech of the Month, January 2022 - Theresa May

If your questions aren't packing the right punch, take a lesson from Theresa May

Speech of the Month, January 2022 - Theresa May

“Be quiet!” I roared at the daughter as, on the telly, Theresa May was rising to her feet to ask Boris Johnson a question following the publication of Sue Gray’s report. You knew she wasn’t going to take any prisoners. Here was her opportunity to put the knife into the person who’d connived to end her premiership and I didn’t want to miss a word of it. And neither did anyone in the House of Commons, which went eerily quiet before she spoke. Oh the anticipation! The catharsis!

And we were egging her on, weren’t we? Because at some point in our past some unscrupulous, self-interested so-and-so shafted us and, if we didn’t get our revenge, we were getting it now through May.

And she didn’t disappoint. She delivered her damning, sensible question calmly and with authority. Her delivery didn’t betray any of the joy she must have felt seeing her nemesis so completely on the ropes. If you need reminding of the moment, then take a look…

Here’s why her question was so impactful. 

She applied the Statement / Question structure

When asking a question, see that it has having two distinct parts; the Statement and the Question. Before you deliver a line that would have a question mark on the end of it if it were written down, deliver a statement. In the statement you will set out the evidence that’s fuelling your question. The statement puts listeners in the picture. Don’t make it too lengthy, though. It is a statement, not a speech. 

Then, after you have delivered your statement, pause, and ask your question. So when May says, “So either my right honourable friend had not read the rules, or didn’t understand what they meant, or they didn’t think the rules applied to him. Which was it?” she’s moved into the ‘question mark’ section of her question. 

Do practice this structure. The statement phase makes it more difficult for an answer-ducker to wriggle away from actually responding to the question. 

She posed the question dispassionately

Yes, she posed the question as if she was a neutral observer, not as someone who was previously done over by Johnson and finds his rule-breaking abhorrent. And because she does, it makes the evidence she sets out in her statement all the more damning. When posing questions, less emotion is always more. 

She took her time

When you are posing a question, you need for every word to be clearly absorbed so keep your language plain and accessible. Still, if your language is plain and accessible but the pace is too fast - perhaps because you’re nervous - then you’re not going to do your question justice. 

May keeps her pace slow. Interestingly, she placed the palms of her hands firmly together as she posed her question. I suspect she did this because she was nervous. She would have felt emotional taking her old adversary to task so publicly so pressing into her palms helped her to steady herself. But, even with heightened adrenaline, she was mindful to keep her vocal delivery measured. 

Do the same yourself. The more nervous you are, the more aware of pace you need to be. 

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“Emma is a first-rate trainer who practices what she preaches. She gave a wonderful talk to the law school. Attendees were struck by her style, authenticity and the accessibility of her content.”

Simon Price, Principal Lecturer in Law, Uclan

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