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Presentation skills: beware the pitfalls of spontaneity – The Lawyer

All it takes is a few seconds. One-time Labour leader, Neil Kinnock called it a ‘rush of blood to the head;’ the point when all good sense appears to go out of the window and a well planned speech stumbles down a calamitous path of spontaneity…

It is perhaps no coincidence that Boris Johnson’s lead in the polls was at its largest when the prime ministerial candidate was conspicuously saying very little at all. Note the strenuous efforts that his back room team have been deploying to keep him on script as the Conservative leadership race progresses.

It remains to be seen if Mr Johnson can bite his tongue until Tory party members cast for their next leader. If he can’t, we may see the kind of implosion that caused defeat to be snatched from the jaws of victory thanks to a lapse of good judgement by Neil Kinnock in 1992.

We’re Alright!… Er, actually no we’re not.

Mr Kinnock’s moment of madness came as he addressed supporters at a rally in Sheffield just before the 1992 general election. Even now it is a piece of toe curling TV that should be watched by anyone – not just politicians – making a public speech because it illustrates what can happen if you give that little hubris monster the oxygen to make a mess of things.

“This roar hit me, ” he told a BBC documentary, “and for a couple of seconds I responded to it; and all of the years in which I’d attempted to build a fairly reserved, starchy persona – in a few seconds they slipped away.”

His recollection of the incident sounds better than the televised reality – when he lost leave of all sense and decided to yell , “We’re alright!“, in an excitable manner,  not just once but three times. The scripted arguments of his speech failed to make the news, but “We’re alright!” made all the headlines.

A good idea at the time

It’s easy to do. It’s easy to let down your guard, to get swept up in the occasion, to imagine that you are riding the crest of a wave and that in doing so you will take the crowd with you on a wonderful shared journey with your departure into spontaneity.

However, there is a point to sticking to the script. It gives you structure, provides guidelines and keeps you from saying things that seem like a good idea at the time, but really aren’t.  Such ‘things’ can include badly worded observations, ill conceived anecdotes or the sudden desire to tell a joke, utter a war yell or perform a bizarre bodily function.

The current king of the off script moment is of course Donald Trump, who possibly never has a script in the first place. He has frequently been referred to as the Teflon president and this extends to the spoken word as well as dodgy deed.  There are few, if any politicians who could survive such humdingers as “I’ve said if Ivanka wasn’t my daughter I’d be dating her,” or “It’s freezing and snowing in New York – we need global warming,” or “I beat China all the time”, but the Donald keeps on bucking the trend.

Unfortunately, those of us with a less Teflon coated exterior will slip as surely as a cartoon banana skit, and for that reason the best protection from such a spectacular fall is self-awareness, self-control and self-discipline, even if you do leave the stage with bite marks on your tongue….


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