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Political Speech Delivery - Style Over Substance

Recently I was on BBC Radio, discussing Ed Miliband's speech at the Labour Party Conference. As you may have read, he spoke without notes, without a lectern and sadly, as a result, without mentioning some critical points.

Recently I was on BBC Radio, discussing Ed Miliband's speech at the Labour Party Conference. As you may have read, he spoke without notes, without a lectern and sadly, as a result, without mentioning some critical points.

The question I was asked by the BBC was, "Is it a bad idea to speak without notes and just rely on style over substance?"

Firstly, you must have both style and substance in order to engage an audience. The problem for most people is that they spend all of their time thinking about what to say, without any thought on how to say it. Many politicians have delivered perfectly scripted speeches, containing all of their critical points and substance, but due to a boring delivery style nobody bothered to listen to it.

It's worth noting, that in 2007 it was reported that David Cameron had delivered an outstanding speech at the Conservative party conference, which was especially good because he gave this without notes or a lectern.

Frank Luntz, a political consultant who helped Cameron win the leadership, stated in the article "Could you imagine Gordon Brown doing that?"

Back then we couldn't. Brown's speeches before his election defeat in 2010 seemed stilted and forced.

However, did you see Gordon Brown's speech a couple of week's ago for the 'Better Together' campaign? (You can watch the video here). Many saw this as pivotal in the success of the 'no' vote. His passion was captivating and his style was inspirational. What would have happened in the 2010 election campaign if he had spoken with this level of energy and heart? Surely he would have seemed a more convincing leader of the nation.

The great difference between these three note-free, lectern-free speeches is simply that the ones given by Cameron and Brown included all of the critical points. Miliband's did not.

The other UK party leaders offered a range of different styles in their conference speeches over these past few weeks.

Nick Clegg spoke passionately, with a strong voice and great variety that drew us in to his stories. He has a strong stance and broad sweeping gestures that increase his presence on stage. In 2010 his ability to come across as a warm and competent speaker may have helped him win his place as Deputy Prime Minister and he still displays these skills today. However, his style lacks a sense of command and urgency, feeling more apologetic than visionary. When you combine this with his perceived failures in government, he is unlikely to win more votes next year.

Nigel Farage provides us with an interesting case study. When he spoke at the UKIP conference his voice was strained, as he was pushing from his throat. His legs bobbed up and down repeatedly, while making emphatic downward gestures and bobbing his head at the same time. The overall impression created by his style is frustration. This may in fact play in his favour, as this is congruent with his message. He is aiming to represent anyone who is frustrated with politics and looking for a different solution, so by physically and vocally embodying this feeling he may indeed win those people over.

David Cameron chose to speak from behind the podium this year, which creates a challenge for his speaking style. Although he speaks very well, with a strong voice and great control of pace and tone, he has a repeated habit behind a podium of leaning back to one side while pushing his chin out. This can be seen as arrogant or aloof. He certainly has the most commanding style of all the party leaders, but the old Etonian boys in politics have been criticized for being out of touch with reality and so if people feel he is stand-offish then this could work against him.

Finally let's look at Miliband's style. Even if he had remembered every word of his speech, he still would have lacked the appearance of leadership. When we look at our politicians we are searching for a 'pack leader'. Controlled movements, a strong voice, variety and visual size all influence us emotionally. Instead of these, Miliband had poor diction with a weak voice that sits at the back of his throat. His elbows barely moved from his sides, making his gestures appear small and ineffectual, plus he made the same gesture of holding his thumb and two fingers together over a hundred times, appearing repetitive.

It's important to remember that delivery style is simply one factor among hundreds of others that will affect the election. Even if Miliband's style had been exceptional, by forgetting crucial points he would still have lost our respect.

So, how do you avoid this? With coaching you can create a much more commanding style and remember an important presentation or speech from just a few trigger words. The most important things to do are:

- Create a compelling, story-telling journey that is easy for you and the audience to follow

- Have a complete version of the script nearby, as a back-up

- Reduce your script down to a few trigger words that will remind you of the most important points (even Obama uses this technique, to prompt him to tell long stories that he can deliver unscripted, according to his long-term speechwriter, Jon Favreau)

- Write these trigger words big enough that you can read them from two metres away. This means you can glance back at the podium, a monitor or even the floor (a technique used by many motivational speakers) to remind yourself of the critical elements

There is no doubt that both style and substance will affect us. Neither can be truly effective without the other.

Richard Newman is the Director of UK Body Talk Ltd, experts in communication coaching.