Speech of the Month, September 2019 - Jo Swinson

The presentation tips we can learn from Jo Swinson

Speech of the Month, September 2019 - Jo Swinson

Hands up – September’s most notable speech was undoubtedly given by Greta Thunberg at the UN, but as I don’t feel many adults would benefit from shaming and chastising their audience as they try to persuade them to buy or do something, I’ve decided to look at another good speech because we can take away more useable techniques from it. That speech was Jo Swinson’s first conference speech as Liberal Democrat party leader.

Here’s what she did well, and what we can learn from: 

Inject some humour

Jo Swinson’s speech was in no way a laugh-a-minute affair. She had serious messages she wanted to convey, and she conveyed them. But if someone is going to speak for 45 minutes without bothering to inject some humour, then we’re going to feel we’re being preached to – and an audience that feels preached to rarely feels comfortable. But a comfortable audience wants to keep with the speaker.   

Injecting humour doesn’t mean crafting killer one-liners or bringing on the Mr Bean slapstick; you don’t need to be a comedy genius. All it requires are a few knowing asides, a pointed remark or a gentle double-entendre. Here are two that Jo Swinson said of Boris Johnson: “He claims he can negotiate a Brexit deal in a month. I wouldn’t hold out much hope; yesterday he failed to negotiate where to have a press conference.” And “We all know commitment has never been Boris Johnson’s strong suit.” They’re not hilarious gags. All she’s done is attack the common enemy. But the audience loved these moments and laughed loudly. So when you want to inject some humour, think about the thing that gets up your nose and the noses of your audience. And then make a couple of quips about it. 

This works particularly well when you’re delivering an information-giving presentation. This sort of speech can leave little room for humour. I’ve seen presenters try to inject some by telling an anecdote, but this can often feel like the speaker is straying too far from his topic just to get a laugh, which is irritating. But the pointed aside at an enemy’s expense keeps you on track while also prompting that feel-good giggle.   

Appeal to hope

It’s a truth that regardless of how bleak a situation may appear, the human species is innately hopeful. Even when faced with concrete, gloomy statistics, most of us choose to believe that we’ll be fine, that brighter days await. So when Jo Swinson announces that, “today I am standing here as your candidate for prime minister” the hall rises to its feet. She receives a standing ovation. Granted, she’s not saying she’s going to be prime minister which, to the broader audience would seem ridiculous, but by verbalising the words ‘Prime Minister’, she is reminding her audience of the possibilities and, because they are hopeful and want to see a Lib Dem PM, they respond strongly and instinctively. 

So always asks yourself, ‘what is my audience hopeful for?’ And be sure to tap into that during a speech. 

Let emotion happen

During Swinson’s speech she talks about her late father. She says, “My dad was a huge influence on my life. He encouraged me to believe that we can change things for the better. He encouraged me to challenge the way things are. And above all, he taught me always to keep learning, to be curious, to ask questions.” And as she says these words she’s suddenly overcome with emotion. When she rehearsed the speech, she was probably fine. But there’s something about sharing personal information about someone we’ve loved and lost with a lot of people that puts a lump in the throat and a tear in the eye. 

Clients frequently tell me how much they dread being caught up in a wave of emotion. They don’t want to look anything other than calm, cool and collected. And I tell them not to worry about it.

If an audience feels it’s witnessing genuine emotion from a speaker, then it is generally more endeared to and approving of the speaker. However, audiences are very good at spotting when a speaker’s forcing it to spark sympathy, and although it might say, ‘ah’ and make all the right noises, it will find it a turn off and, consequently, it will distrust the speaker. But genuine emotion is incredibly affecting. Since originally publishing this post, Rosie Duffield's speech about domestic violence has been widely reported. Her delivery style isn't great; she sways, she doesn't make enough eye contact. But it doesn't matter. It doesn't matter either that she's tearful at the end of her address because the genuineness of her feeling is palpable and therefore incredibly moving. 

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