Liz Truss has won the Conservative leadership contest and is our next Prime Minister. This means we will all be seeing a lot more of her giving speeches on the news and at the despatch box in the House of Commons at Prime Minister’s Questions. So, what sort of speaker is Liz Truss? And how does her speaking compare to that of former Prime Minister Boris Johnson?
As a member of a Toastmasters International public speaking club, for five years I have delivered countless speech evaluations (giving feedback to speakers) and even won the odd evaluation contest. So let me share my thoughts on our current and former PMs’ speaking styles.
Boris has a dishevelled shabby demeanour and tends to slightly stoop when he speaks. It’s part of his ‘too cool for school’ character. Whether this is contrived, or the real deal, generally much of Boris’s personality serves to demonstrate that he is an outsider to formal structures (though ironically of course having a very Establishment upbringing), breaking protocol and flouting political correctness. His eccentric antics and sound bites are perfect tabloid fodder.
Liz Truss, on the contrary, speaks with a very upright posture. She is earnest and plain speaking. This is what you might expect from someone from a more ordinary background who does not have the notoriety and media exposure Johnson established through his time as a scandal-courting journalist and as Mayor of London. Liz Truss seems to want to convey a serious statesmanlike image.
Boris’s blarney and confidence have helped him to deflect a lot of the accusations he received at the despatch box. He uses all sorts of humour; self-deprecating or subtly self-aggrandising, to deflect criticism rhetoric. He is also happy to make himself the butt of the joke. His Peppa Pig digression during a CBI speech was widely reported as odd but creates headlines and is part of the Pratfall Effect whereby calculated mistakes build rapport with one’s base. This schtick undercuts the seriousness of the message to connect with a mass audience.
Liz Truss uses much less humour, and it is not something she seems to take to easily. She did joke about her purchases from Claire’s Accessories in the leadership debate, but it felt out of her comfort zone. It will be interesting to see how she copes at the despatch box – she may surprise us with her adaptability. Given the focus on policy and facts, we can safely say that she is less of a showman and more of a technocrat.
Boris Johnson appears to be bumbling along and slightly garbling his words – a style which confirms his roguish persona. But then there is a sudden change as he launches into a crescendo of mock indignation. It is worth remembering that Boris Johnson debated at Oxford and that helped him develop a combative style.
Liz Truss is more monotone in her speaking style, injects less emotion into her voice and looks less energised in general. When she modulates her voice, it is quite restrained and never quite hits the highs. Those who have previously worked with her suggest that her voice has dropped in pitch and has also slowed down. Truss has occasional attentional blips where she seems unsure of what she is saying though, to date, she has recovered quickly.
Boris Johnson is known for the animated nature of his gestures; he swivels his body round and shakes his frame to emphasise his points and often uses the classic closed fist movement to emphasise points. He is also not above finger-pointing in seeking to land his major points.
In her first speech as Foreign Secretary at the 2021 Tory Party Conference, Liz Truss did not once move her hands above the lectern. However, in the leadership debates against Rishi Sunak, Truss was seen placing both hands out in front of her outstretched and shaking them quite emphatically. This gave a sense of passion, but overusing these gestures can betray an impression of exasperation and even of losing control. Not great for someone in such a pressured leadership position.
Greek philosopher Aristotle in his famous book Rhetoric, talks about three kinds of persuasion for speakers “The first kind depends on the personal character of the speaker; the second on putting the audience into a certain frame of mind; the third on the proof, provided by the words of the speech itself”. If you compare two speeches, Boris Johnson’s on being voted in as Prime Minister in Summer 2019 and Liz Truss’s first speech on being appointed Foreign Secretary in September 2021, they are very different. Truss focused very much on the policy headlines and set out what she intended to do. Johnson’s speech was much more focused on a personal appeal and paying tribute to those who campaigned for his candidature, and promising to steal all of Jeremy Hunt’s ideas. Boris employs oodles of pathos and humour. He plays the buffoon and then satirises that image to curry favour.
Boris Johnson, whatever you might think of him, will be a hard act to follow. He was a very charismatic speaker with good stage presence and a recognisable persona. He knew how to deliver a speech by using gestures, humour and vocal variety.
By cultivating a loveable rogue schtick, Johnson built a strong personal brand. Liz Truss is less distinctive and has yet to fully lay claim to a signature style – her personal speaking brand remains unclear. To her credit she has several times publicly conceded that she knows she isn’t ‘the slickest of presenters’ – and maybe she seems to trade on her ordinariness to garner support. Perhaps the British public is tired of the constant blarney from a PM eventually forced to resign in the wake of a corruption scandal and wants more seriousness from its leaders. Will this mean Liz Truss’s straightforward earnestness is an advantage? Will she seek to make a virtue out of necessity and rather than playing to the gallery as Bojo did, play up the plain speaking or even use it as a battering ram?
Only time will tell. It will be interesting to see how her speaking style evolves in the cut and thrust of Parliamentary debate where her speeches will be evaluated for substance as well as style.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
|Chris Arning is a member of Toastmasters International, a not-for-profit organisation that has provided communication and leadership skills since 1924 through a worldwide network of clubs. There are almost 400 clubs and 8,000 members in the UK and Ireland. Members follow a structured educational programme to gain skills and confidence in public and impromptu speaking, chairing meetings and time management. To find your nearest club, visit www.toastmasters.org|