September 8, 2022

The most arresting opening to a wedding speech I have come across started thus: “Being asked to give the Best Man’s speech is a bit like being asked to have sex with the Queen Mother.” The audience gasped, clearly a little embarrassed. He then come to the point: “It’s a great honour but nobody really wants to do it.” Jerry Seinfeld also has a good line on public speaking. “Speaking in front of a crowd is considered the number one fear of the average person. I found that amazing. Number two was death. This means that to an average person, if you have to be at a funeral, you would rather to be in the casket than doing the eulogy.”

Our new Prime Minister would seem to be in this camp. She is awkward behind the lectern, nervous of public speaking and wooden in her delivery. She seems untrustworthy. Oh the irony. Boris Johnson was the least trustworthy Prime Minister in living memory, but he papered over his character flaws with rhetorical bluster. And that made him feel “relatable”.

Even his faults and his vanity were requisitioned to the cause. Better a cad that you know than a saint that you don’t.

Truss at the lectern simply doesn’t perform. There is no polish or flamboyant public-school bullshit. She doesn’t let you in with self-deprecating humour. But could we come to see this as a mark of authenticity? She is reassuringly dull: dull in a not-Boris kind of way. In a way that might elicit an increasing sympathy and identification for her comprehensive straightforwardness. More like Seinfeld’s “average person”. She might be poor in front of camera, but perhaps she will be far better behind the scenes.

Boris’ last speech as PM was full of his usual tricks. Lots of looking around and eye contact, pointing towards people, responding to their noise, making them feel he was talking directly to them. Lots of expansive hand gestures, body movement, voice modulation, banging the podium, fist clenching. He looked down at his text, but he looked up much more. He was fully present to others; at least, that was the impression. And even when saying goodbye, it felt like he was enjoying himself with words.

By contrast, Truss was rigid. She didn’t extemporise and she stuck to the script. She talked straight to the camera. Occasionally, she remembered that she had been told to smile — so did so mid-sentence, a grin that seemed unconnected to the words she was reading out. There were no pauses or modulations of the voice. It was boring.

She was much better at PMQ’s. Perhaps because she didn’t have too much time to think about it. Like many people who would rather be in the coffin than giving the eulogy, I suspect she over rehearses set piece speeches.

This is a common mistake. What does a person who fears public speaking actually fear? Often, the nightmare is standing in front of a crowd with nothing to say. They are all there looking at you, and words — the words don’t come. To protect themselves against this, people over-prepare. As a vicar, who has organised hundreds of funerals, this much I know: if someone says they will speak for five minutes, they will do 10. Written-down words are a comfort blanket.

At least twice a week for over 20 years, I have spoken in public, mostly sermons. Many of the great public orators have something of the preacher about them – Martin Luther King Jr was a preacher, Obama could have been one, Thatcher, who had to work on it, was the daughter of one. Political speeches are often secular versions of pulpit prose.

My first sermon was a disaster. I was used to speaking from a script during Oxford tutorials. And when I got up into the pulpit for the first time, six foot above contradiction, I basically read out my weekly essay. And I could see the congregation glazing over. During the following week, my boss gave me a terrifying instruction: no text next week. And so, for 20 years, I have ad-libbed every Sunday. No notes.

This much I have learnt. Find the one thing you want to say, then tell it as a story. Yes, it may go off in various directions, but always return to the point. Take a basic idea and turn it into a narrative. Know your beginning and your end. And look at the people you are talking to. Focus on the ones who are nodding and smiling – they give you energy.

Also, nerves are your friend. No one speaks well without nerves, they keep you focused. But don’t allow the nervousness to become what you keep on thinking about. Prepare with a laser like focus on what you want to say. Boil it down, boil it down. Then relax and explain it.

Preach “with the newspaper in one hand and the Bible in the other”, said the great theologian Karl Barth. To translate into secular terms: have a strong sense of what is important to you, and make it bounce off the headlines, interact with present reality. For all his rhetorical polish, it wasn’t at all clear what Boris really believed in. After a while, it became obvious his fireworks were a kind of misdirection. I still don’t really know what he believed in other than himself.

You don’t get any of that Cincinnatus nonsense with Truss. There can be no better way of exorcising the toxic Johnson era than with some straightforward, albeit clumpy delivery. I wonder whether in the end we will come to see Truss as a woman without guile.

Politics is, after all, the art of out-narrating your opponent, telling better stories. We will have to see whether Truss’s style can achieve this. Perhaps she will be able to position herself as Seinfeld’s “average person”. People could well come to identify with her lack of polish. Electorally, it may be a surprisingly good look, she’s boring but she means business. After all, the only person she has to out-narrate is Keir Starmer – perhaps the only person on the House of Commons who could tell a political story worse than her.

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