The Pitfalls, Pity and Paranoia of Public Speaking

October turned to May in the UK when everyone was talking about the disasters that befell the current leader of our government during her main party speech. While many used it as an opportunity to deride UK Prime Minister Theresa  May  as a leader, I was filled with compassion for the human and the woman. There are so many people out there, and statistically you are likely to be one, who are terrified of public speaking and her experience would surely have compounded their worst fears.

To summarise briefly, this is what happened: in the space of the 1-hour speech at her party political conference,

  • 10 minutes into the speech, she was interrupted when a man was lifted to the podium (by another man) who handed her a P45 with the words, “Boris asked me to give you that”.
  • Halfway through her speech, almost 30 minutes of delivery, her voice became restricted and her speech interrupted by a persistent cough. Water gave some relief but after a minute she was rescued by a colleague passing her a cough sweet.
  • Towards the end of the speech a letter, then a second, fell off the party political message written in her backdrop and camera frame.

Any one of these would have been unfortunate; all three together would be considered a disaster for any speaker. How did she handle it? I would love to hear your neutral, unbiased opinion. This is probably an appropriate point to mention that I’m not a fan of the Conservative Party and had not developed an opinion of Theresa May up to this point, except to see her as a stool pigeon for the party, nominated to see the UK through a very difficult time. With votes close to 50:50 in a Brexit referendum last year, she is damned by at least half the country in whatever she says or does. I don’t envy her.

But as a professional voice and speech coach, I now admire her. I would not advise anyone to speak for an hour but she did it in a well-organised, well-structured speech – kudus to whoever wrote or helped her to write it. With regards to her response to the interruptions, my assessment is:

  • She handled that upsetting, undermining and rude prank very well. She did her best to turn it around with an improvised, successful joke. In what would have devastated many, her recovery was remarkable and showed true leader tenacity.
  • The stress of what happened manifested itself in her voice when she developed that cough. This is a common and understandable reaction to stress; the muscles tighten and the breathing becomes restricted. The body’s attempt to release the stress is a cough. How much better would the critics do with the world watching through an hour long speech? The cough sweet helped and she was again remarkable to be able to improvise a joke to go with the situation.
  • Unbeknownst to her the letters behind her came down. This was something she was not made aware of and there was no visible reaction from the reporters or the audience that I detected – kudus to them; that was the last thing she needed. Ironically, I think it might have been caused by the amount of clapping and standing ovations her party showed in support of her.

The reality is that there was only one issue in this speech. I believe that had the prankster never reached the stage, neither of the other two issues would have emerged. It should be that people applaud a person who rises above such a prank, and the prankster should be shamed.  Sadly, this is not what has happened and for days afterward the spotlight was on her.

The critical remarks were mostly negative or defensive. Apparently, aides blamed her loss of voice on themselves, for having put them PM through 28 different interviews before her speech, reported The Guardian. The Sun reported a historian as saying, “It’s hard to think of a more diabolically disastrous speech.”  I did a bit of research. Guy Walters, Etonian, is the source. Interesting. I listened to a critique on YouTube by a male voice/speech coach who named several men would he believed would have made a much better joke in recovering from the prank. Hmm…

I don’t like much about politics at all, or think too much about politicians for that matter. But I take my hat off to this woman who is not only accepted a poisoned chalice last year, but is being forced to drink from it. Methinks she will stay in power until Brexit is finalised, if only because no one in the male-dominated world in which she operates will take it from her.

As for anyone who fears public speaking, allow yourself be inspired instead of intimidated by her experience. Theresa May wasn’t born with the ability to speak in public. Recovering as she did takes years of practice, tenacity and, I’m certain, some coaching.

Our voice, our ability to speak out is what differentiates us as humans; it expresses our freedom. Don’t let anyone take that from you. Don’t deny it to yourself. As someone who is passionate about enabling people to find their voice, I would love to be part of that liberating journey with you.

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