This was due to be the defining speech of her premiership so far and the one that would give greater clarity to where the UK stands as it readies itself to leave the EU. But did it achieve that? Was it a good speech? Was it a great one? I have watched the speech twice and wanted to share my thoughts. This is not intended to be political comment, just thoughts on how the speech was put together and how it was delivered. So I will talk about 2 things – the content and the delivery.
Part 1 – Content
Less is more…?
At a shade under 43 minutes it was long and detailed but, to be fair, many people hadbeen asking for detail, any detail, so we can’t blame her for that. So it was very wordy and thorough. I’ll let others decide whether the content itself shed more light or left us with more questions. As far as I could see there were three main sections to the speech.
In section one, she gave us some background and context and attempted to explain to her non-UK audience why, she assumed, we as a country took the decision we did. In section two she laid out the 3 underlying principles that have led her and her team to make the decisions they have, before explaining the 12 points that are our negotiating position. And in the third section she took time to explain what this would mean for us as a nation and for the rest of Europe going forward.
There was an underlying theme which was that the UK would be a “Global” country. She used this word more than a dozen times as she tried to impress upon the audience how important it is for Britain to be looking outside Europe as well as within it. It contrasted greatly to an earlier speech given late last year in which she had claimed that “a citizen of the world is a citizen of nowhere.” But I guess this is politics and they are allowed to change their minds!
She made many assertions and statements and she often did this by using a technique that she has used throughout her premiership so far; that of “contrasts”. “Contrasts” is a classic speech-making tool that dates back as far as Shakespeare “To be, or not to be” being the most obvious example. JFK said “Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country” and May took this technique and played it for all it was worth. Her speech was littered with contrasts:
“This is not just about……but rather…..”
“The result of the referendum was not because we are an inward looking country but rather…..”
“June 23rd was not the moment the UK decided……it was rather…..”
“It’s not simply that our history is…….but it is…..”
This is a great technique, when used sparingly! Mrs May used it countless times so for me, the technique lost some of its impact and authenticity.
Say it again Sam!
She also used “Repetition” – Another classic technique used by most great speakers - “I Have a Dream” and “Yes We Can” being two obvious examples. Mrs May repeatedly said “I want us to be…..” and “Why we will be…….” Hammering home again her vision for how she wants the UK to still be at the forefront of business and innovation and how she wants us to be able to trade freely with Europe without having to pay large sums into the EU for the privilege. Time will tell whether that will be possible.
The language was always simple and accessible and the words would have been understood not just by people from the UK, but by anyone with a reasonable grasp of English (you see, she’s got me contrasting now!!) She made sure that the key points were well defined by prefacing them with “Let me be very clear…” and most important sentences were short and succinct.
The Rule of 3
Another classic technique - “This is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning” (Winston Churchill), “Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” (the American Declaration of Independence) “Government of the people, by the people, for the people” (the Gettysburg Address). Again May used this rule frequently. “It is in Britain’s interest, it is in Europe’s interest and it is in the interests of the wider world” Why the rule of 3? Well, it has been proved that we remember 3 things better that we do 2 or 4. Note how the third point is often the longest – a poetic device that helps the words trip more easily off the tongue and are pleasant on the ear.
Say it like it is
The tone of the language was assertive and optimistic. There was little softening of words and she used the first person “I” frequently to take ownership for what she was saying. One was left in no doubt that this is what she believes is right now and not just the views of her party or advisors. I think the speech was designed to show that our negotiating stance will be strong and we will be tough and not easy to push around. She also wasn’t afraid to issue veiled threats to people who might not want us to get what we want. Again, time will tell whether this was wise.
Part 2 - Delivery
The following is, again, not intended to be political and is my opinion.
Let’s start with the positives. She began as we advise all our clients to do with a lovely Kennedy Sweep (if you don’t know what I mean, book yourself on a course!) Her pace was measured and constant throughout and she paused to let those key messages sit. The pace helped her to come across with gravitas and authority and has surely led to some of the “Iron Lady” comparisons that some of her more ardent supporters have been making in the press. When making a speech you always have to ask yourself “how do I want to be perceived by my audience?” My guess is she wanted to be perceived as stoic, defiant, tough but fair; a strong leader and one not to be taken lightly. I’ll leave you to decide if she succeeded with that.
It’s often observed that Mrs May is not a natural speaker and this speech served as a good example of the challenges she faces. In my opinion, she misses an essential ingredient – charisma. Her tone and expression conveys little warmth or likeability. She will always be admired by those who agree with her and disliked by those who don’t. Her delivery was very one-dimensional. I often talk about “gears” on my courses. If you want to know what I mean, look at our Facebook page https://www.facebook.com/SpeakSpeechUK/ and the speech Obama gave before the US elections. Mrs May only has one gear and so this means that it is hard to distinguish how important her different messages are. Her voice has weight but there is little nuance or modulation to it. I detected little passion for what she was saying. Perhaps it is unfair to compare her to Obama or Churchill but this is the stage she is now on – it doesn’t get any bigger than this – and for me she falls well short. She is not even in the same league as Thatcher. You may well think that this was not the time or place for such things. I would argue that great speakers will invoke these qualities in any situation. Her cold tone will have done nothing to endear herself to the many millions who voted to Remain or indeed to the many millions listening in Europe. Perhaps you will argue that this is exactly what is required at this point in our history; that what we need is pragmatism and cold, hard reality and the “let’s just get on with it”, no-nonsense type of attitude. That is up to you to decide.
Every single word was read. 100%. There was no veering from the script, no extemporaneous moments or impromptu asides. You may argue that this was not the place for that, but the problem with a rigid script is that it can create a distance between the speaker and their words. In the hands of a great actor or politician it can work, but Mrs May struggled to generate warmth because the words were scripted and could actually have been written by anybody. So for me it lent a detachment to the speech. Perhaps inevitably it also led to her losing her voice and coughing her way through some of it. It is extremely difficult to talk for more than 40 minutes without a break especially if you are just reading. Again it is worth looking at the Obama speech to see how “in the moment” he often is. Yes, there are times where he is clearly following a script but there are also many moments where you can see him thinking about what he is going to say before or as he says it; where it appears that a thought has just come to him. This makes what he says sound real and somehow more relatable. I could have stood up and read Mrs May’s speech and I guarantee you it would have been more exciting. I couldn’t lace Obama’s boots.
The proof of the pudding is in the eating
I guess the effectiveness of a speech all boils down to how it is received by the people who hear it. As expected with such a controversial speech, it has been met with mixed reactions. Sections of the press, many of her own party and UKIP as well as millions of people who want to leave the EU and believe in a “hard” Brexit have applauded it. Other political parties, many people who voted Remain and many in Europe have been appalled by it. For me the speech provided a lot more clarity in terms of her position and the position of the government. The devil will be in the detail and whether she is able to get everything she wants is questionable, but at least you could argue we now have a better sense of where we are heading - whether we agree with it or not.
But I can’t help thinking that she missed a trick with this speech. She had the opportunity to speak not just to the millions who voted to leave the EU, but also to the millions who voted to stay (damn those contrasts!) There were few words of comfort for those people and very little in her delivery to influence them that the direction we are heading in is the right one for our country. Her words were uncompromising in their directness but I can’t help feeling that, in the hands of a subtler, more compassionate presenter, she might have been able to begin the long process of uniting her divided country. I am not sure that this speech will have done much, if anything, to help with that.