In defence of a Conference speaker
Far too much will be made of the Prime Minister’s delivery yesterday although, of course, by writing this I am adding to the noise rather than standing back much in the same way that the driver who complains about the traffic forgets they are part of the problem.
Granted, the speech was billed as a big moment for the PM; a chance to reassert her leadership given the self-inflicted wound of the general election and the never-ending whirlpool of disunity over Brexit. But to pillory her for things beyond her control are, sadly, the meat and drink of the pundits who sit in superior judgement on their Channel 4 chairs revelling in telling Jon Snow how ‘dreadful’ her speech was.
Full marks to Sir Vince Cable for his comments and full marks to the PM herself for struggling through, although what else could she do really?
Taking each ‘moment’ in turn. The “comedy” P45 stunt was unexpected and with anything that is unexpected these are moments to endear oneself to an audience by not ignoring them, acknowledging and turning them to one’s advantage. Theresa May did pretty much that. Had she tried to ignore what everyone else could plainly see and hear, the egg would definitely be on her face but she didn’t. Now, Theresa May is no stand-up comedian and, I fairness, has never claimed to be. Indeed, do we really want a comedian as our leader? Yes, it would make for some fun TV coverage and comments about them being ‘so funny and quirky’ but I think there is a good reason that our politicians need not to be funny and quirky. Credit to her – she acknowledged, she took it in good humour and she came out with a one-liner that may not be winning any prizes in Edinburgh, but it was apt and spontaneous.
Next, the scenery malfunction. Well, when it rains it pours and it is obviously something for those who despise her to use as a metaphor for falling apart and so on, but it was not her fault. I doubt very much that the PM spent the weekend gluing letters to a backdrop having, as she no doubt did, more pressing matters to attend to. Whoever ‘designed’ the set should be on the receiving end of a P45 – we do live in an age of digital media after all.
Finally, the coughing fit. The job of being PM is, I suspect, all consuming and exhausting on the body. The voice is part of that and, in her case, will have to be used to keep a rowdy and rebellious Cabinet in order (and who’d really want to do that), to speak with authority in the raucous bear pit of the House of Commons and then to deliver lengthy speeches in front of very large audiences both live and relayed via television. This ceaseless vocal function takes its toll (just ask Adele). Again, she acknowledged it, made light of receiving a lozenge from the Chancellor and carried on. WHAT ELSE COULD SHE DO? Imagine if she’d said ‘oh sod this for a game of soldiers’ and stormed off stage. Fun though that may seem, it’s not what leaders do.
So I want to join Sir Vince and put my head above the parapet and say well done Prime Minister, rather you than me.
Finally, what should she do next time? Well, there will be many who suggest that an hour or so of daily tai chi followed by a spot of transcendental meditation along with some Om chanting will do the trick, but in the real world of busy people a few quick and simple breathing exercises, and short vocal warm up and a tiny physical adjustment would work wonders.
I’m standing by with my steamer in case the call comes from Number 10!
Luan de Burgh (MA Voice and Speech) – Luan is a voice coach who helps leading figures deliver effectively from stage.