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Poor Theresa May. She literally choked, didn’t she?

6 October 2017

By Dan Leatherdale

A member of the audience hands a P45 form (termination of employment tax form) to Britain's Prime Minister Theresa May as she addresses the Conservative Party conference in Manchester, October 4, 2017. REUTERS/Phil Noble

REUTERS/Phil Noble

Theresa May’s conference speech needed to achieve so much, but the unhappy headlines were being written long before the set started to collapse.

At AGL, we have a lot of sympathy for her. Sometimes things go wrong, and, when the stakes are high, it can feel appallingly lonely to shift, under the gaze of friends and foe, from being the master of your fate to a victim of happenstance.

No amount of wittily proffered cough sweets can sugar that pill.

So what advice do we give to speakers when it comes to weathering such a storm?

Breathe. Anxiety makes us breathe in a quicker, less regular pattern – snatching in the air which dries our mouths, tickles our throats and can make us dizzy. Sometimes we even stop breathing all together, like when we tense up before lifting something heavy. This reduces the oxygen in our brains and in our muscles, causing the former to function less well and the latter to judder anaerobically. So breathe slowly, in though your nose and out through your mouth and imagine the air is filling you with vitality and optimism. Mrs May began her speech in pretty good voice, but gradually her breathing becomes quicker and the scratch in her voice starts to appear. Understandably, this becomes considerably worse after the prankster/self-publicist Simon Brodkin upstages her with his spook P45.

Be grounded, and speak easy. Adopt a stance where your weight is spread across both feet and your knees are unlocked. Relax your face and adopt an easy expression in your eyes. The great acting teacher and founder of the Western method, Stanislavski, encouraged his students to be relaxed and ready, like a cat. A cat can spring from a curled position to several feet in the air partly because its muscles are relaxed and not tense in the rest position. Theresa May began her speech shifting her weight from foot to foot, her shoulders stiff, her neck tense. We think this physical tension won’t have helped her roll with he punches as they came.

Focus on your intent. Perhaps the most important thing in communication is knowing what you are trying to achieve – what you want your specific audience to think, feel and do. Be utterly focused on this, and do not deviate. In particular, don’t try to do more. If you add in too many secondary intentions, such as making coded side-swipes at enemies or trying to win approval and admiration, you may lose your way. Ed Miliband famously omitted a key chunk of his speech as Labour leader after conspicuously refusing an autocue to demonstrate his impressive recall skills. By forgetting to talk about the economy, he failed in his core intent – to establish Labour’s credibility in that area. Theresa May made a good attempt to stay on track, but after the interruption form Brodkin you can almost see the gap open up between her words and her thoughts. Playing though the consequences in her mind, she started talking about one thing while thinking about another, and this reduced her ability to respond, in the moment and through connection with the audience.

Embrace the hard stuff. To return to a performance reference, actors are encouraged to think of anything that happens unpredictably as a gift. Accepting that gift with confidence is often the only viable option when the set starts to collapse. Now clearly this isn’t easy. We don’t all have Obama’s easy manner or Boris Johnson’s sometimes reckless gusto. But Theresa May will know, deep down, that those guys would have laughed in the face of a TV fool. They’d have taken the piece of paper from his hand and dismissed it with the confidence of Billy Connolly – and the audience would have loved her for it. Theresa May did her best to stay relaxed and to respond in the moment – but this was not her first instinct and it made her a victim of circumstance who had lost control of the moment.

I personally feel bad for Theresa May, and, like our clients, am relieved to say that most events pass with considerably less incident. At the same time, good preparation that puts you in the moment and allows you to speak with confidence, clarity and warmth, will always put you in the best position possible to turn adversity into success.