Something extraordinary happened at Prime Minister’s Questions today. Ed Miliband won. The Labour leader is routinely bested by the usually accomplished debater David Cameron. Yet today Cameron looked rattled. Very rattled. Miliband, admittedly on Labour’s home turf of healthcare, floored him.
At the end of the exchange, Cameron resorted to unedifying personal barbs about Miliband’s career prospects. When your opponent vacates the debate topic and snipes at you instead, that’s usually a pretty good sign that you’ve beaten him.
So what was behind Miliband’s shock success? As is so often the case with conveying a message, it is less what you say than the way that you say it. Miliband spoke slowly and carefully, his heart rate barely accelerating, never mind skipping a beat.
No master at public speaking myself, I have, nevertheless, had to do it numerous times. There has been social events – not least the male rite of passage that is the best man’s speech – and work ones: conferences, debates, round tables and so forth.
The best tip I have ever had is to speak slowly. What sounds like normal rate to ones own ear can sound quick, even breathless, to the poor audience who are expected to take it all in.
And speaking slowly performs one other key function – it gives you more thinking time. If you have got to answer a question – as our political leaders have to do (or try to avoid doing) every Wednesday – it is possible that the slower speaker thinks of one by the time his sentence culminates. The fast-chatter is afforded no such luxury.
So highly do public speaking experts value the power of slow, measured speech that there exists a range of tips on how to force oneself to do it. It’s not that easy. So used are we to chatting at a rate of knots to colleagues and loved ones that, when asked to slow things down, we can find it akin to walking slower than our normal pace – it just feels unnatural. The most efficacious advice I heard was to concentrate on pronouncing every syllable of each word carefully. It’s amazing how we blur enunciation during normal speech.
I’m not sure what came over Miliband today – but he was remarkably effective. So much that he appeared to cool down as the shaken Prime Minister exuded ever-greater levels of heat and steam. I recommend getting the video when available from the BBC. If anything, it could be a collector’s item – the day Easy Ed gave us all lesson in public address.
For more public-speaking tips, click here
Image of Ed Miliband courtesy of By Ed Miliband for Leader (Mandate for Change) CC-BY-2.0, via Wikimedia Commons