Speech of the Month, June 2019 - Rory Stewart
A clever tip we can take from Rory Stewart's interview preparation
June has been a slow month for speeches. No doubt some crackers have been delivered in conference halls, court rooms, wedding venues etc up and down the land – and no doubt some stinkers too - but none that we can all access and I can comment on.
So then I thought, ‘well what was the stand out public speaking moment for me this month,’ and immediately a moment in the C4 Tory leadership debate sprang to mind. Near the end of the programme an audience member asked the would-be PMs what their greatness weakness is, and this happened…
Michael Gove went first, telling us that is greatest weakness is impatience, but thereby letting us know that, according to him, he’s fabulously dynamic. Next up is Dominic Raab who’s pleased to confess that he’s restless but hoping we’ll read that as, ‘I’m brimming with energy to change things for the better.’ And then we go to Rory Stewart who says, “I’ve got a lot of weaknesses. Many things I don’t know about the world. The important lesson I’m taking from this campaign is about my ignorance, my frailty about the things I don’t know.”
Shock horror! What’s he doing? Doesn’t he know he should be cloaking a strength as a weakness and talking about that? Of course he does. But he's decided to subvert everyone's expectation and say something more honest, and because this is so surprising, the audience spontaneously gives him a round of applause.
What’s delicious, if you look at the video, is how Sajid Javid and Jeremy Hunt respond. They immediately realise what Stewart’s done and how it’s been received, and you can see a flash of envy mixed with a moment of, ‘Should I change the seemingly impromptu script I’ve carefully prepared now and do something similar?’ all over their faces.
I’ve picked this incident to examine because it’s a great lesson to us all. Which of us hasn’t been asked that dreaded ‘What’s your greatest weakness’ question? How can we answer it so that we feel we’re being true to ourselves and respectful to the questioner but without damaging our chances of promotion? The Stewart response teaches us a few things:
Don’t thinly veil a perceived strength as a weakness
This approach might have worked ten years ago but it feels old hat today. The interviewer immediately recognises what you’re doing and can feel frustrated by you not only avoiding the question but using it as an opportunity to make even more of a case for yourself. Also, if you have more than a grain of integrity, this approach is going to feel duplicitous, and because of that you’re likely to hesitate and not give eye-contact as attempt your reply.
Offer a real weakness, but not one that’s closely linked to the role you’ll do
Write out a list of your weaknesses and decide to proffer the one that is furthest away from the work you’ll do. So if you are going for a role where creativity is crucial, say that you can be slow to keep on top of admin; if the role is very client-facing, maybe confess that your report writing skills aren’t as strong as they could be. It’s about your very real weakness having negligible impact on your new employer.
Talk about a weakness that every candidate will have
This was the Rory Stewart approach. All he really admitted to was not knowing everything. But who does? None of his rival candidates could ever say that they have the combined knowledge of commercial lawyers, brain surgeons, academic economists etc. So maybe consider what the weakness that you and all your rival candidates have, and speak about that.
Use some humour
‘What’s your greatest weakness?’ is a groan question. The questioner probably dreads asking it but knows that candidates’ responses can be very illuminating. So if the interview is going well, you’re getting along, maybe give a jokey but true first response, i.e. ‘cream doughnuts’ but then speak about the actual one you’ve prepared. If you feel you can go for a fun reply, don’t make it too revealing or offensive. Most interviewers won’t want to hear ‘Red wine’ or ‘Leggy blondes’ – although I daresay there are some rural outfits in France where such a reply would be met with an understanding nod.
“This was an excellent event, very well presented and professionally put together. It covered practical, actual and hypothetical situations including projection and voice control. Would definitely recommend this to other members.”