Speech of the Month, November 2023 - Shirley Ballas
She came late to TV presenting but that didn't stop her nailing it
When I saw this article in the Guardian last week about Shirley Ballas, I clicked on it immediately. I’m border-line obsessed with Shirley. Every time I see her, I think, ‘If I can be as energetic and relevant and glam as her when I’m 63, I’ll be made up.’ I’m not so inspired that I join a gym, mind, which would be an easy first step.
On reading the article and listening to the podcast ep that fuelled it, I realised that Shirley and I have one pretty rare thing in common: we both have to give people feedback publicly. This can be tricky to get right: if you fail to raise a problem that everybody else in the room can see because you’re worried about hurting the feedback-receiver’s feelings, then your credibility is down the toilet, but if you’re too direct and exacting, you run the risk of looking like a bully, and that’s never a good look or a great feel.
Shirley had some help from her son to help her navigate the feedback tightrope, but she has many presentation attributes beyond that which, when you consider she didn’t start her TV career till she was 57, and she started it on a flagship show with 13 million viewers, is pretty phenomenal.
Here’s why she always gets a 9 from me…
She exudes high status
As Shirley has said herself, Strictly offered her an incredible lifeline. Her career as a dancer had been long over, then she worked as a coach but she was getting bullied out of the business by Italian judges who told dancers that if they worked with her, they wouldn’t score them highly so - when Strictly started looking for a new head judge to replace Len - she was considering leaving the bizz and giving keep-fit classes to keep the wolf from the door.
Bagging the Strictly gig was a fab stroke of luck for her, but just because lady luck smiles on you, it doesn’t mean you’re unworthy of the gifts that the smile bestows. If Shirley had joined the panel appearing too delighted for the opportunity, then that would have been terrible, not the feel we expect from a head judge. Instead, she approached it with professionalism, remembering that she is the expert, she has more right to be there than anyone (bar the dancers) and because of that, she was immediately convincing and accepted.
Of course, as the years have rolled by, she’s become more relaxed in her presentation style. When you look at the video below that announces her arrival, you can see that her body and jaw are much stiffer than they are today, and she hadn’t quite mastered the TV ‘light smile’.
Her feedback is balanced and useful
She always finds something kind and complimentary to say to contestants, even those with two left feet and, most importantly, it feels genuine. But she also gives them a clear tip for improvement and is prepared to demonstrate what she means. She also – and this is something I’ve learnt through trial and error – doesn’t overload contestants with tips for improvement. Rather, she tells them about one or two that they’ll be able to put right. And all the while, she does it with warmth.
Her pace and tone are perfectly measured
As she delivers her feedback, she does so with a slow, measured pace. This gives contestants and viewers the chance to really digest it and it also gives us the feeling that she’s very sure of her feedback. This is something we should all learn to do when giving advice to clients, colleagues, children etc.
She never shirks the Strictly demand for glam
Thank God she doesn’t play it safe and dull because she’s 60+, safe and dull are not what the show’s about. But equally, doing glam once you’re in your 60s probably does mean swerving mutton at times. So hats off to Shirley for always looking cracking and never, ever whiffing of mint.
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