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Jack Downton

The Influence Business

Managing Director

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What political leaders can teach us about presenting


Not only do HR directors and other senior executives need to be able to present well, but they also have to convince their audience that they are natural born leaders.

Whether giving a presentation at an Annual General Meeting, to the entire workforce at a staff away day or to the great and the good at a Confederation of British Industry event, senior managers have to show that they are experts in their topic while also demonstrating a statesman-like demeanour.
But mastering this difficult combination is just as much a challenge for political leaders. It’s a tough ask, and those that don’t deliver on both counts face withering criticism and public ridicule in the national media. The political conference season has just ended, however, and all three party leaders delivered their usual annual addresses.
While political sympathies will inevitably colour readers’ views as to the persuasiveness of each leader’s speech, we explore whether Nick Clegg, Ed Miliband and David Cameron (in order of their conference appearances) made the grade when it came to presentation skills and gravitas, and what can senior executives can learn from them.
Nick Clegg, leader of the Liberal Democrats
Before the last General Election, Nick Clegg was feted as a consummate public speaker. His performance during TV debates was dubbed ‘masterful’ and his ability to wield a long pause when required was widely admired.
At the Liberal Democrat Autumn Conference in Brighton on 26 September, Nick Clegg once again performed well. His presentation was very polished and confident as he stood at a lectern on an informal stage on the same level as his audience.
He was relaxed, his speaking voice was natural, he spoke at a comfortable pace and he came across as genuine. But Clegg was also animated and showed energy and enthusiasm for his subject. He engaged with his audience by looking at it, gesturing towards it and addressing some people as individuals.
He also used humour where appropriate and appeared honest and likeable. While covering a large number of topics, Clegg managed to get in a number of ‘sound bites’, which helped the audience to remember his key messages.
These included “to make blue go green, you have to add yellow’ when he was talking about the environment.
A key leadership quality is credibility. Not only do leaders need to present a vision, they also require the moral courage to stick to that vision. In order to feel inspired, followers must believe that they will do what they say rather than say one thing and do another.
But while Clegg ticked lots of leadership boxes, demonstrating sincerity and gravitas, he failed to address the controversial issue of tuition fees, which undermined his credibility.
Statesmanship: 7
Authenticity: 9
Theatre: 6
Vision: 8
Credibility: 6
Ed Miliband, leader of the Labour Party
Ed Miliband’s speech at the Labour Party conference in Manchester was described as a ‘tour de force’ and as ‘game-changing’ by the national newspapers. Many were surprised by the boldness and style of his presentation and there was speculation about whether David Cameron could measure up.
Afterwards, a poll showed that the number of people who viewed Miliband as ‘statesman-like’ had increased from 18% to 34%.
Speaking without notes and without hiding behind a lectern, he gave his speech to an audience in the round. His style was relaxed, almost conversational, and his delivery was confident. Miliband was animated, mobile and engaged directly with his audience.
But precisely because his performance was so unexpected, it jarred in authenticity terms. He had clearly worked hard on his delivery and, as a result, it came across as too coached.
Miliband’s studied ‘natural’ behaviour left an artificial impression, his hand sitting in his pocket (man of the people) was a case in point. It was great theatre, but something wasn’t quite right. It wasn’t credible.
While his speech focused on leadership topics such as his vision and personal values, he lacked gravitas. Miliband may have been aiming for a Steve Jobs-style presentation, but the result was more akin to comedian, Michael McIntyre.
He came across as over-confident and blustering and used too many gags to appear statesmanlike. This meant that, while he played well to the room, he did not speak to the nation.
Statesmanship: 4
Authenticity: 5
Theatre: 8
Vision: 8
Credibility: 4
David Cameron, Prime Minister and leader of the Conservative Party
David Cameron’s presentation at the Conservative Party conference in Birmingham on 10 October was old school, formal and traditional. He stood on a raised stage and spoke from behind a lectern but, while he scanned the room with his eyes, he was largely static throughout with the exception of the odd pointed finger and a bit of lectern-banging for emphasis.
This more formal and traditional approach helped Cameron to achieve a sense of gravitas and presence. The speech was no more or less than expected, which reinforced his authenticity.
He, like his colleagues before him, set out his vision in a bid to inspire the party faithful. He argued his case and explained things simply and, like Miliband, included elements from his personal history, although the speech was not all about himself.
As a presenter, it is important to focus on topics of importance to the audience, which is largely ‘how will all of this affect me?’ While personal openness is useful to show that you share values and care (about your party, nation, employees etc), too much demonstrates that the focus is on your own interests and not those of the audience.
But by tackling difficult subjects, Cameron came across as honest. There were a couple of quips and ‘sound bites’ to help the audience remember his key messages such as wanting “to spread privilege”.
As Prime Minister rather than simply party leader, Cameron pitched his presentation correctly. His tone was more serious than the other two party leaders and he was aware that he was speaking to the country and not just the party faithful.
Statesmanship: 9
Authenticity: 9
Theatre: 5
Vision: 8
Credibility: 8
To summarise, all three party leaders are technically good public speakers. What is interesting, however, is that much talked about issues such as speaking with or without notes, using a formal or informal style or being able to deliver a punch line pale into insignificance when compared to the importance of showing authenticity and credibility.
It is also worth noting that all three leaders managed to create a distinctive impression and deliver memorable messages without the use of PowerPoint.

Jack Downton is managing director of coaching and career development company, The Influence Business.

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Jack Downton

Managing Director

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