Speech of the Month, May 2024 - Sir John Curtice

Professor Sir John Curtice proves you don't have to be polished in all areas to be a scintillating speaker

Speech of the Month, May 2024 - Sir John Curtice

About twice a year, during a group workshop, a delegate will say, “My boss / partner / brother does all the things you’re telling us not to, and they’re brilliant at public speaking.” It’s a difficult one to argue against since I’ve never seen said boss, partner or brother in action. Yet, I know there are some speakers who are so dazzling in particular delivery areas, and these areas eclipse any general no-nos they might be making. 

One such speaker is the polling supremo, Sir John Curtice, who gloriously appears on our screens during elections. If you’re unsure who he is, then do check him out in the video. 

As you see, Sir John commits several presentation no-nos. He crosses his arms; he wriggles; he touches his face (particularly bad if you’re being filmed) and he rarely looks at the people in the room. However, he is eminently engaging and this is because…

His passion overrides his ‘performance’

Sir John knows his statistics and conclusions inside out, so he never has to ponder a question, instead he quickly launches into his answer (another no-no) with excitement and relish; his impish grin stamped on his features. His passion to communicate is such that he seems completely unaware of himself. 

When a speaker is ‘on fire’, an audience won’t care if the speaker is shuffling around and not looking at them. However, if a speaker is lacking self-consciousness (spinning a ring round a finger or playing with change in a pocket) while objectively running through last month’s finance report, then the audience will not be able to get past the physical distractions. So my advice is this: if you know you’re not evangelistically fired up by your topic, ensure you are mindful of your movements. 

His vocal range is sweeping

Sometimes his voice is low and deliberate then the next moment it’s high and pacey. And when it’s high, he likes to elongate his vowel sounds so that listeners feel the full impact of ‘the move’. 

Listeners enjoy being on the receiving end of such tonal switches. It means our ears, and therefore our brains, don’t get sleepy. It means we’re constantly being surprised and stimulated. Basil Fawlty in Fawlty Towers is a prime example of sweeping range. 

I don’t believe Sir John is using his vocal range consciously. It’s just something he can do. So, if you know that you also have the ability to shift the pitch of your voice quickly and confidently, make the effort to do it. Audience members will never come up to you after a speech and say, “Hey, great vocal range!” But they will want to listen to you.

He makes lovely expansive gestures

Workshop participants often apologise for gesturing and I tell them not to, because I don’t believe gesturing is a bad thing. Rather, I believe the hands are an extension of the mouth, and therefore trying to suppress hand movements is as restrictive for a presenter as a muzzle. ‘Make whatever gestures come naturally’ is my view but – and this is a big but – ensure your gestures fill the space you’re speaking into. Grow them appropriately. 

Again, this is something Sir John does instinctively. Large gestures make a speaker appear comfortable and confident; small gestures suggest fear and distress. And if your audience senses fear and distress, it can’t settle and listen to you, regardless of how well your vocal range might be working!

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Five stars
“Emma's service completely exceeded my expectations. After sending her some of my best stories, she wove them into a tremendous speech that I could then play around with. Plus, she added some jokes and touches that I'd have never seen but which made the whole speech sparkle. She gave me great tips on how to deliver it too. So many people complimented me on it but actually they didn't need to, I knew I'd done a great job, and that's something I wasn't sure I'd manage at all before I met Emma. She's an absolute credit to her profession!”

Don C, Father of the Bride, Harrogate

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