What are your tips for presenting yourself as a knowledgeable political spokesperson on TV?
Two tips. First, take every opportunity you possibly can to practice and to speak in public. I had the great benefit of appearing a lot on 18 Doughty Street, an internet TV offering sadly no longer with us, which offered punditry and commentary from the political right: it was an amazing training ground for young politicos because the equipment and hosts were really top-notch but – being a project ahead of its time in many ways – the audience figures were low, meaning that one could learn in a relatively risk-free environment.
Secondly, read up. As the Bar teaches you, there is nothing that underpins confidence in public speaking like knowing your material and being certain of your ground. The ability to make plain, clear statements; the willingness to contradict another speaker; the absence of uncertainty and hesitation: all are helped hugely by mastering your brief. This is as relevant to sound bite TV as to courtroom advocacy.
What’s the most challenging thing about public speaking?
Tailoring your remarks to the mood or interests of the room. I don’t mean changing your fundamental message or saying things you don’t believe, of course – I mean knowing when to dwell on one subject when you’d normally move on to another, or dialling down the humour on something you’d normally make a joke about, because you’ve read the audience and know you need to deliver differently this time. Paradoxically this can get harder as you speak more often – especially in a condensed period of high activity, like a campaign – because you’ve become accustomed to saying the same kind of thing, but now you need to change it.
What are 3 key qualities that make a fantastic public speaker?
First, being comfortable ‘on your feet’. This is something that one learns with practice, but there are easy tips that can help. For example, rather than writing out a whole speech, note your key points in bullet point form, and build your speech more naturally around them. This should give your speech a logical flow and also ensures that you don't omit something important. It seems that Ed Miliband didn't do this in his recent Party Conference speech, in which he didn’t make arguments on immigration and the economy that were in the printed speech.
Secondly, diligence. Every so often one just has to speak with very little preparation, but the aim should be to minimise those occasions as much as possible. With my other hat on, I am elected in the City of London in local government and just like the Bar, it has really taught me about the need to read up before getting to one’s feet.
Thirdly, never forget first principles. In competitive debating, or at the Bar, one would often see people disappear into the intricacies of extreme detail because they knew the issues or case so well, often obscuring the fundamental points of fact or law that supported their position - they weren't able to filter their own knowledge in a way that kept it helpful rather than confusing and unhelpful. Public Affairs advocacy and TV work are much the same. You need to master the detail, but never forget to argue the fundamentals. Often, whilst you've had this argument many times, the audience listening to you - whether it be one politico in an office or millions watching TV - are hearing it for the first time. Take them with you, don't lecture. Imagine you were hearing it for the first time yourself - what would you need to hear, starting from first principles, in a logical order, to convince you?
Fantastic insights, Alex. Thank you very much for taking the time to talk to us.