Even a quiet man can speak volumes
As Peter Botting's anecdote confirms, it's not only what you say, it's how you say it
The body language of a leader can win or lose elections for their party. In fact, it usually does.
Political leaders know this. Successful ones embrace the risk of public appearances. They realise the potential costs but embrace the opportunity. Fortune doesn’t always favour the bold - but the bold at least get in the ring.
Your body language and the way you say things are far more eloquent and far more important than what you say.
In the 24/7 news cycle world of the 2012 politician, time is more scarce than ever before. The higher up the career ladder they go, the more likely the 2012 politician is to be coached or helped in some way. It is understandable that they have less time to do research or write their own speeches. Time to reflect and think is replaced by immediate and “important” tactics.
And the first thing to be worked on is usually the content, the words, the manifesto. The most important things - how you say what you say and what your body is saying while your mouth is talking - these things unfortunately come last.
Staff prepare briefing papers and write speeches. Private companies test messages and manifestos. Leaders becomes actors or actresses rushing from stage to stage to deliver words processed, prepared and pre-tested by others.
No wonder people are more cynical now than ever before. Especially about politicians. People still buy or vote based on how they feel rather than on data and statistics. People want politicians to give a damn - not to pretend that they do.
How voters feel still counts, even in 2012. How voters feel counts far more than any message tested, focus group steered words and phrases.
And when politicians are not at home and happy with the words and phrases put into their mouths by others - the public sense it. They smell it. The public may not be professional body language experts and may not be able to point exactly to why they don’t trust someone. But they have been making instantaneous decisions on the credibility and authenticity - or not - of everybody they meet since pre-school. So of course they use their experience to test politicians too.
Authenticity. It's a big word. Quite in vogue and topical. But what is it? For me it means having no gap between what you say and represent externally and what you believe. Can that really be so hard?
I wasn’t a fan of Iain Duncan Smith (IDS) as leader of the Conservative Party in Britain. He was party leader so I supported him. But I wasn’t a fan.
Then, after he had been replaced by Michael Howard, he gave an after dinner speech. I was there. The speech wasn’t guaranteed to be a success. How many of his speeches had been previously? Adding to this, it was a dinner preceded and accompanied by a lot of good wine. The audience were young and exuberant and loud. And I didn’t think social justice was exactly high on their list of political priorities - even when sober. I was cringing in advance for him. Willing him to just survive.
Nearly 10 years later, I still count myself lucky to have heard his speech. He cared about what he said. They were his words, coming out of his mouth, about a topic he cared deeply about, that he was angry about. Everything was consistent. What he said, his facial expressions, his eyes and his body movements. Unlike actors who screw up the order because they are delivering lines, he felt, then he showed, then he said. The way he said what he said was real and his delivery agreed with that.
The audience were in awe. Silent. The standing ovation was spontaneous and it went on and on.
His words were backed up by his actions in setting up the Centre for Social Justice, staying in the public eye and not skulking off into obscurity. Without the title of leader, that night he became a leader to me. Suddenly I saw in him what Tim Montgomerie and Philippa Stroud and others who knew him had seen before me. This was a leader, with a vision and the passion and the body language to make his words as persuasive as his actions. The words were there too of course, but they were a small part of the mix.
There are rumours in Westminster that CCHQ had spent over £100,000 on presentation trainers and speech coaches for IDS when he was Party leader. The only positive outcome for me from that investment is that he now wears light blue ties and white shirts. They would have been better advised, to misquote Aaron Sorkin, to "let IDS be IDS". To have asked him what he cared about. And then make sure his voice and his body language either reinforced his credibility and his message or kept out of the way.
Some politicians don’t need coaching to disguise or to conceal. These are the conviction politicians. They only have one choice. They can get coaching to make sure that their body language or the pitch of their voice or their clothes do not cheapen or distract from what they are saying. Or to polish their message and project it further and better. Or they can do without.
But they don’t need coaching to cover things up. They are not hiding anything. They believe what they are saying. They are real. They are in sync - with themselves. They are genuine. IDS is one of those. And we need many more.
Peter Botting is a professional corporate, political and personal messaging strategist. He was integral totheNO2AV campaign and helped put the UK Anti-Slavery Day into law. He tweets at @PeterBotting and you can find more of his work at www.peterbotting.co.uk
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