Speech of the Month, July 2021 - Cressida Dick
By keeping her own emotions in check, Cressida Dick's statement that followed Wayne Couzens' guilty plea was incredibly moving.
We’ve all had tough days at the office, right? A stand out one for me started with a frantic half hour trying to find a parking meter that would work; next up I had to rearrange a room because the layout was dreadful; delegates entered and one of them turned out to be Mr Contrary - everything I said he had to disagree with, and with lots of aggression. It was exhausting. Especially as this came on the back of a sleepless night due to a tickly cough.
Still, all this pales when I compare it to the morning Cressida Dick had to work through on 9 July. Facing the grieving parents of a young woman who was abducted, raped and killed has got to be bad enough, but when the perpetrator happens to be a member of your staff, well…
The murder of Sarah Everard had shocked me, but it hadn’t moved me. I suppose when you hear of such appalling and sad cases, it helps to keep them at emotional arm’s length. What good does it do to imagine the terror Sarah felt once she was inside Wayne Couzens’ car? But, as I listened on the radio to Cressida Dick’s statement following Couzens’ guilty plea, I couldn’t stop myself from sobbing. Here’s why it was so affecting:
Commitment to every word
Dick was reading out a written statement, and every word in it has been specially selected. In delivery, she did justice to those words because we heard every one of them. She kept her pace slow and she sounded out every word clearly and distinctly. No word flew from her mouth without her knowing why she was saying it. Because of this, she was profoundly connected to what she was saying.
The esteemed voice coach Patsy Rodenburg has a tip for achieving that level of connectivity to a script and it’s to see a visual as you say the word, a visual that is in keeping with the word, of course. So when Dick says ‘angered’ maybe she is seeing the cup she threw at the wall when she learnt the prime suspect's occupation. When she talks of being ‘saddened’ perhaps she’s recalling a disillusioned officer she’s needed to console. Rodenburg’s point would be that in seeing such images, our voices bond with our words, and therefore give them more potency.
Temper your emotions
Because I first heard Dick’s statement on the radio, I thought she’d done a great job at keeping her pace measured, but when I saw the statement on TV, I realised that she was pausing to swallow (because her emotions were running high) and to breathe. Basically, she was keeping it together.
I speak a lot to my clients about pathos appeal, the ability to make an audience ‘feel.’ What’s interesting is that the speaker doesn’t have to emote for an audience to feel something intensely, and this is an example that demonstrates this point beautifully. Had Dick let her own emotions show – in a way that Davina McCall, say, couldn’t have helped herself – it would’ve been indulgent, tasteless and disrespectful to Sarah’s family. By tempering her emotions, she appeared dignified and sensitive.
How to temper them, though, when we feel that wave of emotion creeping up on us. The best thing to do is stop, pause and take a low breath and let the wave wash over. Dip your eye-contact as you do that and raise a hand if necessary so people know you’ve not finished and don’t want to be interrupted.
Face up to the audience
Although Dick was reading from a carefully penned script, she did not hide in it. She didn’t rattle it off with eyes glued to the font. No, she came up from the page, looked the media in the eye and spoke to it openly and honestly. It was plain to see how sorry and dreadful she felt.
During work presentations, most of us don’t read from a script. We think it looks a bit naff and unsophisticated. ‘Leaders aren’t readers’ goes the maxim and therefore presenters often spend an inordinate time trying to memorise material. This is silly. Reading publicly is fine. Just make sure that you’re reading script – language that’s written to be said – as opposed to text and, like Dick, get off the page and face your audience.
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