Blog & Articles

So You Want To Get Selected?

Last month I published an article for Barndoor Strategy, looking at the prospects for candidates in the coming elections. Authenticity is going to be in demand as voters become disillusioned with slick, over rehearsed ‘clone’ candidates:

Nobody quite knows how the Brexit impasse will end.  But whether we leave on the 12th April, stay for a short while or have a further long extension, one thing is clear.  The UK will be heading for a General Election a lot sooner than 2022.  Parliamentary parties and structures have broken down in an unprecedented way.  Never mind the whips losing their authority; the whole principle of cabinet collective responsibility has been holed below the water line by recent events.  The shattered pieces of parties elected to form the 2017 parliament will never be put back together.

With an increasingly divided and fractious parliament the inevitable conclusion is that sooner or later there will be an early general election.  It might happen by accident or design but an election is the only thing that can heal these wounds.  In this context, many people will suddenly scramble to get themselves a seat.  2017 has many grim lessons for those who left it too late or worse still turned up to an Association as the ‘central office candidate’.

This time things will be different because of members’ expectations.  In all parties there is a growing disdain for the professional political class.  Members won’t be fooled again by people in flash suits claiming to be ardent advocates of one cause or another, only to see their principles fall away as they ascend the steps of Palace of Westminster.  Associations are being more assertive about what type of candidate they are looking for and the type of MP they will support.

The next general election is also likely to throw up a disproportionate number of safe seats.  As many MPs relations have broken down with their Association.  The days of MPs being selected by their local party on the basis of telling them one thing and being able to continue in office while doing the complete opposite at Westminster are coming to an end.  We’ve entered a new age of localism and authenticity.  With the rash of “remainer” defections and near defections at Westminster, Conservative associations will be on the lookout for candidates who genuinely share their world view.  These safe seats are likely to be particularly wary of so-called “carpet baggers”.  All the more reason for serious contenders to make sure they have built their ties with a prospective Association early.

Applicants will need to be aware of local issues that may affect the vote as well as past voting trends over the long term. Once safe seats like Kensington are no longer such great prizes but the shift in political loyalties is creating some good prospects north of Watford Gap. The views of local activists are also important – there is little point in a remainer applying for a seat who have just removed someone with similar views from office.

In this context, early engagement with a seat and the building of genuine ties and rapport are vital.  Candidates with a history of local contacts and supporters are far more likely to meet with the approval of this more discerning audience.

One thing is for sure, whatever the result of Brexit UK politics will not be the same for a long time.

If you want to learn more about campaigning or public speaking Barndoor Strategy can help.  Contact us for more information.

Fear Cuts Deeper Than Swords – Controlling Your Nerves

For a lot of people, standing up and performing in front of an audience is a worrying prospect. Even experienced presenters will feel that rush of adrenaline as the moment approaches. The key is to use that adrenaline for fight rather than flight, to let it give you an edge without allowing it to undermine your performance.

Remember that phrase from Game of Thrones – Fear Cuts Deeper Than Swords.

It’s time to conquer your fear.

PREPARATION

Without a map you will get lost and without proper planning, your speech is more likely to go wrong. On a strange journey, a map helps your confidence. You know the route and you expect to arrive on time.

Before you stand up and open your mouth, you need to understand some basic facts. Who are the audience? What do they want? What do you have in common with them? What do you want from them? How are you going to make your call to action? Most importantly, What is your key message?

You should take the time to write out your speech line by line and practise delivering it. If there is a time limit you must make sure that you don’t run over it. This is particularly important for presentations during interviews or competitive pitches, or in quasi legal situations like Council planning committees. Assume that you will be stopped if you exceed your time.

But in other situations it is also wise to avoid rambling on and trying the patience of your audience. A good rule of thumb is that you should never speak for longer than twenty minutes without at least breaking for some questions or perhaps a video.

Time spent before the speech will pay dividends during it. Practice until you feel comfortable with your speech and use each successive delivery to weed out difficult sentences, obscure concepts and words that cause you to stumble. Each iteration should be better than the last and if you keep a written record, your speech should improve continually.

Be particularly careful with humour. A joke or humorous story needs to be delivered using precise words, voice tones and timing. Avoid it if you have any doubts about your ability to make them laugh.

Your final speech should be so familiar that you can deliver it on autopilot but now is not the time for hubris. Keep your notes with you for the occasion, preferably somewhere close to hand, in case you dry up. It is unlikely to happen but the presence of your notes will give you some reassurance if things get difficult.

OPENING

A speech is a bit like flying a plane – the most dangerous parts are closest to the ground. Your take off and landing should be planned meticulously.

When you stand up, expect an initial rush of adrenaline. You are facing a sea of people, some familiar, some strangers, all expectant. The good news is that they all want you to succeed. So, pause for a moment before you deliver your opening line.

Those first moments are vital. Like a plunge into a cold swimming pool, the initial shock can throw you but you will quickly acclimatise to the new situation. You should memorise your opening line, word for word so that you know what to say even if you face a momentary blankness.

Opening lines can vary. You can state the purpose of your speech, or your key message. You can use humour to warm them up. You can talk about something you all have in common – people warm to presenters who are like themselves. If you are following another speaker, you can thank them and invite applause – this will encourage them to respond during your own speech.

The important thing is to build rapport right from the start. The old adage before you sell anything, you have to sell yourself, always applies.

CLOSING

As your speech approaches its conclusion you can be forgiven for feeling some relief. But this is not the time to relax. Think back to the flying analogy – you want to land with wheels down, not nose first.

It can be difficult to conclude. I have seen people trapped on conference platforms as their time runs out, unable to find a clean way to close their speech. It is not a pretty sight.

So, make sure you learn your closing lines as diligently as the opening ones.

The close should repeat your key message and include a call to action. What do you want from them? It could be their votes, their sales orders, a job or just their support. It feels very un-British to ask them but trust me – it works.

And whilst you are delivering your call to action, take the opportunity to make it as inspiring as possible. You want to conclude to applause if possible. You want them to want to hear more from you.

BODY LANGUAGE TIPS

Generally, your body language should be as open as possible. This is more likely to come with confidence, which is why I want you to put in the hard yards of preparation first. It takes a lot of practice to look this spontaneous!

But don’t obsess about your body language or posture. As long as you aren’t doing anything that distracts from your message, you should be fine. In particular, try not to hold notes or other items as these will tend to limit your arm movements. If you are short – I’m 5ft 5ins so I share your pain – then try not to get hidden behind lecterns. For questions it is often better to remain on your feet even if a chair is offered.

Eye contact can be a problem, particularly with smaller audiences. It is too easy to get fixated on one pair of eyes, wondering what they are thinking, or even clinging to them for support. Try looking at the foreheads of the audience instead. From where they stand or sit, you are still meeting their gaze, but without the danger of looking overly hostile or fearful.

When I coach speakers, I try not to get too hung up on things like posture. Most great speakers have their own tics and peculiarities which make them more memorable. I’m not in the business of cloning super slick presenters or making people look over rehearsed.

If you need advice do contact me – I’m here to help.

Weddings – A Challenge for Inexperienced Speakers

This time there’s no escape!

Even if you don’t need to speak in public professionally, there will come a point where you have to address an audience. For many people this happens at a wedding. You want to be at your best for the people you love on the most important day of their lives. No pressure then…

The good news is that the ordeal needn’t be too long. As a rule, wedding speeches should never go on for longer than ten minutes. The audience will be on your side, willing you to do well. On the other hand, there are pitfalls that you must avoid.

As usual, I recommend speakers work with a structure: An Opening, which builds rapport and relaxes the audience, a Middle which contains the meat of the speech, and a Conclusion which leads up to the toast.

Usually there are three speeches – although some weddings may have more.

FATHER OF THE BRIDE

The Father of The Bride has the pleasant task of welcoming all the guests. He might talk a bit about the arrangements for the big day and of course some kind words about the Happy Couple are in order.

There is room for a couple of amusing anecdotes which should be tailored to the audience.

The speech should conclude with a toast to the Bride and Groom.

GROOM

The Groom gets to reply to the Father in Law’s toast on behalf of himself and the Bride.

He should take this opportunity to thank the guests, the Best Man and anyone who has contributed to the success of the day including both sets of parents. This can be quite a long list so it needs to be broken up with a few keen observations.

There is also an opportunity to say something amusing about the Best Man who will be speaking next.

The speech should conclude with a toast – this time to the Bridesmaids.

BEST MAN

The Best Man replies to the toast on behalf of the Bridesmaids, however he has the toughest job because a lot more is expected of him.

In effect, he introduces the Groom to the audience, dwelling on amusing incidents from his past. These should be carefully chosen so as not to cause offence and there should be no more than three in a ten minute speech.

Humour is very challenging. You need to be spot on with your timing and have all your words in the right place. Humour is to speaking what the dressage is to three day eventing. You cannot prepare too much for this moment.

The good news is that the audience are on your side. They will laugh at anything amusing, though there should be nothing too racy or controversial.

OTHER SPEAKERS

The advent of same sex marriages and the empowerment of women have created some interesting possibilities. I have known weddings where the Bride will also say a few words to break up the traditionally male dominated speeches. And in a same sex partnership, both partners may wish to say something.

Social occasions are a challenge because the speakers may not have a lot of experience. Help from an experienced speech writer and coach can be invaluable – so do contact me for more details. If the day goes smoothly and the audience enjoy the speeches, it is money well spent.

Preparing For An Interview

Here is a piece that I wrote for Barndoor Strategy on interview preparation. It’s surprising how much of the interview process can be anticipated and controlled with some thorough pre planning:

Most interviewees don’t look forward to the ordeal. They view it as a series of hurdles – an opening presentation, an easy first question, a tough question, a sneaky question, some final questions, then they are over the finishing line. The problem with this approach is that everyone makes it through the interview, but only one person gets the job.

That’s why I teach my clients to look at the interview not as a series of hurdles, but as a series of platforms on which they can proclaim their greatness. This needs careful planning – it takes a lot of preparation to look spontaneous.

Key to this approach are the job description and the person specification. These should clearly state the attributes that the interviewers are looking for. The first step is to list them.

You now need to compare your own experiences against this list. There should be plenty of matches – if there aren’t then why are you applying?

So, for example if ‘Working in a Team’ is specified, think of a time when you did this well. For a particular project the team worked on what was the problem? What did you contribute? What was the result?

If ‘Resilience’ is required, when did you face a setback? What did you do to recover? What was the outcome and what did you learn?

These examples not only prove your case, they also make your interview a unique and memorable experience for the panel.

With the examples listed, it’s time to anticipate the questions. These are likely to address the requirements in the job description. You should be able to match your evidence to the expected questions.

For the above examples you could expect:

Tell us about your approach to teamwork.

How do you respond to setbacks?

If there are some examples which are particularly strong or which don’t easily match the set questions, you should consider putting them in your initial presentation, or referring to them at the end of the interview when they ask if you have anything to add.

The aim is to leave the interview having given them every piece of important evidence on your list. A planned approach takes time but ensures that you won’t be kicking yourself after it is all over and wondering ‘Why didn’t I mention that?’

I can help you to plan for an interview, create a strong opening presentation and anticipate the most challenging questions – contact me for more details.

Goal Setting for Candidates

In December I wrote a piece for Barndoor Strategy about goal setting for political candidates. With two months of 2019 behind us already, it is worth revisiting to check up on progress:

POLITICAL  GOAL  SETTING  FOR  2019

The New Year stretches ahead, filled with excitement.

2019 promises to be as turbulent and unpredictable as its predecessors with Brexit expected in March if the current timetable can survive attempts to extend Article 50 or stage a second referendum. A period of uncertainty is likely to follow as the UK and the EU adjust to our new relationship – a relationship of friends and equals rather than master and servant.

Looming over everything is the possibility of another General Election. Whilst it looks unlikely, the political parties are gearing up for a campaign and putting candidates in place.

For ambitious would be MPs the coming year could see opportunities to build their reputations, enhance their skills and achieve their dreams. It’s worth devoting a few hours to planning for the coming twelve months.

EXPERIENCE

Campaigning experience is a must have for all MPs. From the Prime Minister to backbench councillors, everybody puts in those hard yards of leafletting and door knocking. A solid track record is required before selection so now is the time to be putting the work in and keeping a record of achievements.

Parties often look for candidates with an interesting back story so it is worth considering your career path and how the things you learned and experienced can be brought to life in your CV and personal publicity.

Three dimensional candidates are sought after so some solid experience outside politics and work is useful. Volunteering is a great way to keep your feet on the ground and demonstrate the ability to reach out to people and understand their problems.

And it is worth remembering that success in business on its own very often doesn’t translate to success in politics. Your campaigners are volunteers who can walk away if they don’t like your leadership style and you need the support of elected colleagues if you are going to get things done once in office.

PROFILE

Over 100 applicants regularly send in CVs for the best political roles so you need to stand out from the crowd. Already having a profile can provide a flying start at the initial stages of selections and of course it helps to be recognised by voters.

So you should be grabbing opportunities to write pieces for political magazines and websites even though these are rarely paid. Likewise those very valuable radio and television interviews. Social media makes it much easier to build a profile from scratch, using blogs, Linked in and even Twitter but there is also the potential to make mistakes in public and these can haunt you on the internet.

Opponents will often look for historical statements which can be presented in a bad light so you need to overhaul your social media profile before stepping into the political limelight. The good news is that these attacks don’t seem to impress voters who focus more on what candidates can do for them, but they can provide reasons for risk averse parties to sacrifice candidates at a more junior level.

SKILLS

Politics is a varied activity that requires lots of different skills. Most people will have some of them but very few politicians can claim to have them all. So a skills audit and some coaching from Barndoor will probably be in order.

Communication skills including speech writing, public performance and media skills are all essential to successful MPs and councillors. Remember that a politician who claims the public don’t understand is really admitting that they can’t explain – and a politician who can’t explain should find another job.

Committee work is also a valuable skill particularly if it has not featured in your professional environment. Being able to recognise the agendas – official, political and personal – of fellow committee members will help to make your own contributions much more effective. Of course actually chairing a committee can be very challenging particularly if it is taking place in front of a large audience or it is making contentious decisions.

Some grounding in law is also useful for would be legislators. There is a reason that so many lawyers become politicians – the skill sets are very similar. These include advocacy, negotiation, client meetings, case preparation and a basic grounding in constitutional law and the principles of natural justice.

Modern politicians operate in the spotlight so mistakes are accentuated and they remain to haunt your history. They also need to be able to embrace variety, dealing with different specialisms, demanding situations and people from all backgrounds. Politics is fun and there are great opportunities to achieve results for constituents and the country.

But good politicians never stop learning and they know that it is never too early to start.

In a single session, I can work with you to plan your political goals for the coming 12 months – contact me for more details.

Tips For Speech Writing

The following article was written by me and appeared in the most recent edition of Vaahan Magazine – it provides some useful advice on writing a structured and effective speech:

Almost thirty years ago, I experienced one of those moments that change our lives forever.

I was in a fairly junior sales job and, if I am honest, not making a great fist of it. I was simply too young and too new to London to have the confidence to close deals. However I was great at sales presentations which I got to practice during training but never got to deliver because I lacked the seniority that was so important in 80s business.

Being unable to use a skill was so frustrating!

There I was, sitting in the London traffic, when a politician came on the radio, speaking to a big conference. I immediately thought I could do that!

This light bulb moment launched a 26 year political career which saw me using my speaking skill to address all kinds of audiences all over the capital as well as in other countries. I also took time to study law and was Called to The Bar in 1997, winning a debating award at the prestigious Middle Temple.

I have written and performed hundreds of speeches and coached aspiring politicians and managers through this unfamiliar and often daunting process.

Now I use my experience to help people facing the ordeal of public speaking. For many successful individuals only rarely speak in public and view the prospect with worry and even panic. A great speech can really enhance your professional reputation and boost your career in a very short space of time, so it is worth doing and it is worth taking the time to get it right.

PREPARATION

It takes a lot of planning to look this spontaneous!

We tend to fear the unknown, so detailed preparation really pays off.

Most important is to know your audience. A group of professionals will expect you to be well informed and authoritative. A large audience at a festival will just expect to be entertained but gaining and holding their attention could be tough. Friends and family at a wedding will want you to be your best for them and in some ways that makes the pressure even greater.

Familiarity with the venue is also vital. I always tell speakers to arrive early and check out the room. Are there any distracting echoes? Does the microphone work effectively? Can you actually use that Powerpoint presentation that you spent so long crafting?

And of course you must understand the purpose of your speech. Why did they invite you and what are you hoping to achieve? With this knowledge you can craft a really well aimed message that holds their interest and leaves them wanting more.

STRUCTURE

Every speech must have a structure to ensure the message is delivered and to cut out pointless waffle. Good speeches have a clearly defined opening, middle and ending – like a successful game of chess.

For a very short speech you might just memorise opening and closing lines and aim to make no more than two points clearly and persuasively. The start of your speech is the most difficult moment, a bit like the initial plunge into a cold swimming pool, so a memorised line can help you through this initial barrier. A closing line is also important as you want to avoid becoming stranded on stage, groping frantically for the words that will end the ordeal.

OPENING

For a longer speech, you need to grab the attention of the audience and get them on side. This rapport building is very important at the start as without it the vital content may go unheard.

In some cases rapport is built by stating a joint purpose or objective that everyone can agree on. In others a little bit of background which shows you share the audience’s views and life experiences may be appropriate – people generally warm to speakers who are like themselves.

Humour is also a good ice breaker – but only if you are actually funny! Previous UK Prime Minister Gordon Brown would start speeches with jokes which came across as very wooden. This was a shame, as his later material was always well informed and passionate when he talked about skills and training. Bad jokes can even cause offence so it is wise to be cautious.

MIDDLE

This is where you develop your arguments and make your case.

Statistics can be used to lend authority to arguments but they should not be over used. In my view there should be no more than three statistical references in a good speech so they need to be chosen carefully. They are a tool to be used sparingly, not a magic wand to wave around.

Examples from real life can flesh out an argument and make it much more memorable. This storytelling element helps speakers to stand out from the crowd particularly when they refer to their own experiences, which will be unique to them.

CLOSING

All speeches require the audience to do something. Politicians want their votes, salespeople want their business, interviewees want the job. So, the speech should conclude with a call to action. In the UK actually asking for things can look a bit un British, but my success rate as a politician was hugely increased once I started asking people to campaign and to vote.

The call to action needs to be delivered in an upbeat tone, closing the speech on a high note and leaving them wanting more.

LENGTH

A prominent businessman was asked to speak at a civic lunch in London. Wisely, he asked how long he should speak for and was told “not long, only four to five minutes.” He prepared carefully and stuck to time, sitting down after a speech lasting Forty Five Minutes, much to the audience’s relief.

That was a case of poor communication, but I have an iron rule that my speeches should last no longer than thirty minutes. Anything more is wasted as attention wanders and so do some of the listeners. Some organisers expect longer, so it is a good idea to break a speech up or to conclude with questions which can go on for some time and should maintain interest.

CONCLUSION

Delivering a speech can be a scary business but it is also a great opportunity to showcase your skills. There is no need to panic if you take time to plan and follow a basic structure.

Whatever your speechwriting needs I can work with you to plan your presentation and to Be Your Best for this important event – contact me for more details.

Happy New Year

2019 stretches ahead, filled with promise and excitement!

This year I am launching my speech writing service. With almost 30 years of writing and delivering excellent speeches under my belt, I will be using that experience to help people from all walks of life to face their speaking challenge and to be their best.

Whatever the occasion, I can write your speech for you, helping to take away the stress and hassle that many first time speakers encounter.

I can also help you to deliver your speech with coaching and advice on preparation, performance and following up to make your effort really count.

A good ten minute speech can build your reputation swiftly and effectively so please do contact me for more details.