The Liz Truss Guide To Public Speaking: What Can We Learn From Her Mega Awks?

(Photo: Dan Kitwood via Getty Images)
(Photo: Dan Kitwood via Getty Images)

(Photo: Dan Kitwood via Getty Images)

“We will deliver, we will deliver, we will deliver.”

Spoken by a more confident orator, Liz Truss’s leadership victory speech may have been full of promise. Instead, the newly-instated prime minister has been crowned “the public’s Darlek”.

Whatever you think of her politics, the jury is all but unanimous when it comes to Truss’s presentation style. The slow blinking, mistimed pauses, vacant smile and occasional fluffed sentence bring to mind one word: awkward.

Like the most recent female PM before her, Truss has been criticised for being robotic, though unlike the Maybot, her batteries look in need of recharging.

Yet, somehow, the MP for South West Norfolk has bagged the top job in the country. How is this possible, some might ask, given a communication style that’s been widely panned? Is eloquence no longer king (or queen)? And what might this mean for the rest of us?

Truss’s speaking style is, “in a peculiar way, obedient and formulaic”, according to Viv Groskop, comedian and host of the podcast How to Own the Room (also a bestselling book).

“On paper it should work. But in the room and on screen it has an unsettling effect, to put it politely,” she says of Truss’s style.

“She embraces all the textbook rules of ‘good public speaking’: using the rule of three to give examples and underline points; leaving pauses and giving ideas room to breathe; keeping her face open and expressive.

“The result, however, is oddly uneven. There is often a strange, unresolved tension between what she is actually saying and her expression when she is saying it.”

We may be baffled by Truss, but Ges Ray, who teaches people how to speak in public for a living, says many of us are prone to similar displays – including the leader of the opposition.

Truss will face off against Keir Starmer in her first PMQs on Wednesday, with the Labour leader no stranger to criticism over his own presentation style. Even those who claim he talks sense label him “stiff” and “monotone”, with one commentator claiming he’d make “a good stand in for the speaking clock”.

Nevertheless, some Labour figures are hopeful he’ll shine in comparison to Truss, according to Politico’s London Playbook newsletter.

“Some Labour figures who spoke to Playbook this week were hopeful that Truss’ awkward speaking style will cause her difficulties in this format (or as one Labour staffer put it: “Liz Truss will make Keir look like a charismatic orator,” they said.

But why do certain politicians come across so lifeless? In our own homes, surrounded by friends and family, we might be warm and engaging people, says Ray. But in front of a crowd – whether that’s the opposition bench in the Commons or colleagues on Zoom – “the world changes”.

A lot of it is to do with evolution, actually,” he says. “We’re exposed and it triggers the fight or flight mechanism in our brains that we ought to run to survive and just get out of there!”

You can’t talk about Truss’s speaking style without referencing that viral speech, where she angrily labelled Britain’s level of cheese imports a “disgrace” and gleefully talked of “opening up new pork markets”.

In the YouTube comments, one person names it “one of the speeches of our times” while another quips that it’s “still her greatest moment as an MP.”

Groskop says the speech is a “vintage moment of unintentional comedy,” that’s stayed in public consciousness because “there is something profoundly weird about it”.

“The speech is a fruitless attempt to turn basic points of information into a moment of celebration: ‘In December I’ll be in Beijing opening up new pork markets.’ Why would you ever expect anyone to applaud that line?” she asks.

“It’s a classic case of someone trying to give a speech about something which (a) they are not genuinely passionate about and (b) no one is passionate about. No offence to pork barons.”

Passion in speeches is great, adds Groskop, but choose carefully what you’re going to be passionate about – and make it authentic.

Of course, there’s something to be said about who we’ve been conditioned to view as a good speaker. Margaret Thatcher famously received coaching to lower her voice to create an air of authority and power and there’s speculation Truss is doing the same. And is Boris Johnson a natural-born orator, as some have suggested, or simply a posh, white man?

One positive takeaway from Truss’ slow ascent to power? The stereotype of “confident public speaking... is changing radically”, says Groskop. We should embrace more kinds of public speaking, she says, especially from those outside the political bubble who “do it awkwardly or have the guts to show their nerves”.

Greta Thunberg is one of the most effective speakers of the past 10 years and she does not use confidence or power to put her points across. She uses facts, authenticity, anger, sometimes vulnerability,” she adds.

“Traditionally, of course, in previous decades we have been used to speakers ― and politicians in particular ― who look and sound more confident than most of us. But often that approach now comes across as stuffy and old-fashioned.

“Now that we are surrounded by TikTok content, TED talks, YouTube and we constantly have people talking at us and trying to get our attention, our perception of what is authentic and worth our time is changing fast.”

There’s a common misconception that public speaking comes naturally to some people, says Ray, when even the best in the biz require practice. He’s previously judged public speaking competitions (yes, they exist), and says “for every minute of the speech, you had a week’s worth of preparation and rehearsal”. 

A seven-minute speech would be two months of intensive preparation in order to try and win,” he explains. ”Give Liz her due, she has not got two months to prepare a seven-minute presentation.” 

Does Groskop have any advice to our new PM if she wants to shake off her awkward reputation?

“In some way it’s ironic when someone like Liz Truss becomes prime minister and everyone criticises their public speaking. That criticism may be valid (and I’m more than happy to add to it as the criticism is deserved) and yet the fact is, whatever she is doing is clearly working for her. So I don’t imagine she would think that she needs any advice,” she says.

“For everyone else, the best advice for owning the room is to prepare hard, take the focus off yourself, and put your focus on to the audience.”

If your public speaking skills need a reboot, Ray advises getting your breathing under control before you step in front of a crowd will help you to appear relaxed. He also suggests getting “the mask of your face working properly” to ensure your “lips and teeth are where they are supposed to be”.

“It’s just like going on a track as an athlete,” he says. “Get yourself ready so you can perform.” 

Ray is convinced Truss will “grow in the role” of prime minister and as she does, so too will her speaking prowess. 

Groskop puts it a little less sympathetically: “One thing we can learn from Liz Truss is something a few women, especially women in politics, have mentioned on [the podcast] How to Own the Room: the bar is set lower than you think. So get out there and do it.”

This article originally appeared on HuffPost UK and has been updated.

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