As wannabe future British Prime Ministers swarm to replace Theresa May, there are vital communications lessons for all amidst her teary departure from 10 Downing Street.
The overall headline message – which constitutes THERESA MAY COMMUNICATIONS LESSON ONE – is this:
Communications skills matter so much in politics, business and everywhere in today’s fast-moving digital world, if you need to enhance yours – or those of your team – don’t wait until it’s too late.
If you’re seeking a role in the spotlight – or any position requiring connecting with people – do yourself and everyone around you a favour and uplift your communication skills ahead of the pressures to come.
Alas Theresa May did not realise this in time.
Developing and refining your communications skills BEFORE you’re in that important position, is so much better than finding yourself hopelessly out of your depth when you get there.
And unlike Mrs May, if you hit a senior level and then realise you need enhanced communications skills, it’s far better to work on them late than never!
Margaret Thatcher delivered her speeches and soundbites so much better after some voice coaching in her early prime ministerial years at the instigation of someone who knew their importance – Sir Lawrence Olivier of Hamlet fame.
It helped Mrs Thatcher sound more authoritative by enabling her to lower her voice at the end of key sentences.
This is something I often help clients with having myself once overcome what’s known as the “Australian Upward Inflection Syndrome” which has – despite my ongoing efforts to stop it – spread to the northern hemisphere and beyond.
Theresa May needed much more than voice coaching – though this alone could have helped sharpen her delivery and prevented her from losing her voice at some critical moments.
But the good news is: Enhancing every aspect of communications is learnable for all.
Being able to get the right messages across – and being able to connect emotionally and effectively with your target audiences – is a vital part of leadership… and a critical part of many other roles in today’s workplace.
Too often Theresa May – despite an admirable doggedness and noble intentions – didn’t manage to get some of her most basic communication challenges right… let alone those with a high degree of difficulty like election campaigning in the frenetic multi-media world.
LEARN HOW TO SHOW NOT TELL
Theresa May’s communications skills spectacularly failed in her only prime ministerial general election campaign in 2017 when she earned the dubious title “The Maybot”.
The Guardian Sketch writer, John Grace, who came up with the term, found it had such resonance with the public he even wrote a Maybot book…
Mrs May managed to lose her Conservative Party’s parliamentary majority after endlessly repeating robotically the term “strong and stable government”.
And after governing since without a Conservative majority, the weaknesses of her communications armoury helped produce the very opposite of strong and stable government.
Suffering fifty – yes 50! – ministerial departures in just under two years suggests there was something going seriously wrong in the area of interpersonal communications skills.
No wonder her Chief Whip, Julian Smith, described Mrs May’s period in office as exhibiting the “worst cabinet ill-discipline in history”.
So THERESA MAY COMMUNICATIONS LESSON TWO is to get your point across by “showing, not telling”.
You can’t just repeat the mantra of something you see as desirable and expect people to buy into it.
You need to paint the right pictures in people’s minds and be able to demonstrate that you can deliver what you’re promising.
This is the “show” bit.
CONNECTING AT AN EMOTIONAL LEVEL
THERESA MAY COMMUNICATIONS LESSON THREE is that in order to persuade you have to connect with people at an emotional level.
This needed to be applied to Mrs May’s interaction with her fellow European Union leaders – and her own Conservative Party Members of Parliament – with whom she needed to negotiate over the still ongoing British exit from the EU.
Effective communication is a key part of negotiation.
You can’t negotiate a win-win outcome if you don’t understand what’s driving your negotiation partners and you don’t connect with them about what both they want and you are seeking.
Mrs May’s communication failure also occurred at an individual level with ordinary citizens.
She frequently managed to appear uncomfortable – underpinned by her awkward stance and alarming facial expressions – when she interacted with British voters and others.
And when it came to the biggest UK physical disaster of her time in office – the horrendous Grenfell Tower fire which killed and injured so many – she commendably visited the heroic emergency services teams but didn’t allow herself to mix with the shattered survivors in her initial visit to the disaster zone.
You can be reminded of the details of this set out in the Doddblog in June 2017 at:
Amongst Theresa May’s highest profile recent predecessors, both Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair demonstrated an ability to understand and energise their party’s core supporters.
This played a key part in enabling both to win multiple elections – and, in fact, to win every general election each contested as party leader.
And in their very different ways and despite all their faults, both Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair had a capacity to often, though less so at the very ends of their prime ministerial careers, connect emotionally with people when it was important to their political success.
CHILDREN OF THE CHURCH: THERESA AND BOB
Another timely contrast is between Theresa May and the former Australian Prime Minister, Bob Hawke, who sadly passed on this month.
Both were born to vicars and both made headlines when they became teary in public as leaders – which Bob Hawke did on a string of occasions.
But he was happy to embrace his emotions and was remarkably comfortable about it – and the Australian public overwhelmingly loved him for it and other things as he recorded the highest Australian prime ministerial popularity levels before or since.
By contrast when Mrs May was becoming (understandably) teary in her farewell speech outside 10 Downing Street she abruptly turned and disappeared.
I wouldn’t recommend anyone to seek to become teary in public, but learning to both contain and embrace emotions at crucial times when in the spotlight is something to aspire to – along with so many aspects of good communication.
FINANCE DIRECTORS CAN SURPRISE THEMSELVES
The fact that communications skills are learnable is often demonstrated by those who do not consider themselves naturals at the art.
For example, I work a lot with Finance Directors who are, by definition. highly gifted with numbers.
They are often not absolute naturals when it comes to communicating their knowledge and messages to others.
But they usually prove themselves to be excellent learners when taking on this challenge with a bit of guidance.
Finance Directors who are ambitious to move on to become Chief Executives, Managing Directors and Board Chairs can demonstrate that they have an enormous capacity to enhance their communications skills – whether it’s doing presentations, media interviews or giving great answers to tough questions.
What I find is that finance people particularly like formulae for good communications.
So when they’re shown structures for organising their thoughts and are introduced to techniques for delivering them effectively – time and again they surprise themselves.
Highly technically-focused clients can prove to be much the same when you can show them how to talk to the non-techie world without the baffling techie jargon!
HITTING YOUR POTENTIAL
If you need improved communication skills for your organisation, do get in touch to discuss a potential programme to hit the right spots.
To get you thinking, you might like to check out the possibilities for individuals to become inspirational business communicators in two six-hour sessions or three four-hour sessions at:
If you’re seeking improved communications skills for your team, have a look here:
And this book can always help:
As the British political classes play their part in choosing the next occupant of 10 Downing Street, for the good of everyone let’s hope this time the selectors take the communications skills of the contenders into account.
If you happen to be the bookmaker’s favourite to become the next Prime Minister, and you’re a charismatic and amusing headline grabber – but with a tendency to say daft things at times – make sure you listen to the right people!
And if you recognise that better communications skills would take you to a higher level, feel free to call 44 (0) 7944 952835.
INTERVIEW ABOUT AUSTRALIA, FROM LONDON AND QATAR – AND BROADCAST TO THE WORLD
One of the most challenging exercises that people doing media interviews face is what are called “Down The Line” interviews, where they’re answering questions from a presenter in a different location – maybe even in another country.
In such cases, you have to talk directly to the camera, which can be discombobulating.
But like other communications challenges, it is a learnable skill.
Here’s the latest attempt at it by a one-time political correspondent previously based in Canberra.
He was invited into the TV studio in The Shard in London to be interviewed about the latest Australian Federal election as the results were coming through this month – as there was no one available in Australia in a difficult time zone.
Such is the modern global world that the interviewee was answering questions from an interviewer based in Doha in Qatar, in a broadcast that went around the world through the Al Jazeera network.
It’s not perfect, but the interviewee did manage to keep looking straight at the camera amidst the goings on in the studio!