Friday, September 14, 2012

Famous Speech Friday: Elisabeth Murdoch's lecture to the UK television industry

(Editor's note: Sydney-based speaker coach Claire Duffy alerted me to this tour de force in corporate speaking, and I asked her to write this assessment for our Friday series. Thanks, Claire!) When Elisabeth Murdoch delivered the prestigious MacTaggart Lecture in Edinburgh on August 23rd, she stepped up to the podium with a lot of baggage she may not have chosen to carry: her gender, her genes, and her business profile in the shadow of News International’s blazing and scandalous wrongdoings.

The MacTaggart is the headline performance at the MediaGuardian Edinburgh International Television Festival, the biggest event in the UK television industry. It’s a special event, an opportunity for an insider to speak their mind to other insiders. The MacTaggart is famous as an occasion where speakers don't hold back. Anyone invited to do it knows they've been given a special platform, with an intimidating history.

In 2010, the then Director-General of the BBC, Mark Thompson described the ingredients of a "classic" MacTaggart: "First you need anger. If you can manage it, rage ….. Next you need a villain. If you study the best MacTaggarts, there's always a proper, black-hearted villain. Sometimes the villain is called Murdoch…. Finally – and this is the mark of true class – if you can, you should insult your audience."

Two Murdochs have given the MacTaggart lecture before Elisabeth, and each took the "insult the audience" approach. James Murdoch told them in 2009 that they were the "Addams family of world media."  20 years earlier, his father Rupert Murdoch "seized his opportunity to vent his frustration and anger on the British television establishment, attacking …class-ridden attitudes, museum-style costume drama…hostility to enterprise, and the elitism of its executives."

Elisabeth seems to understand all this. Her gift is to know what her audience will be thinking, and by confronting it, to get them on side.  She is measured, understated, and sometimes self-deprecating, but she has authority, and gives advice she wants them to heed. While diplomatic enough not to break ranks with her family, she is candid enough to set herself apart from them. It’s a well-executed and impressive example of someone retaining their integrity in a tight public spot.

Her introduction is blunt: the invitation is an honour and "a pain in the ass," one you can't decline, but you worry about. Half-seriously expressing her anxiety over what to wear leads her to an attack on the organisers for not inviting a woman to give the lecture once in the last seventeen years.  She reels off a list of female industry leaders who should have made the grade and chastises the committee for ignoring them. But then she moves on to the really big elephant in the room.

"Writing a MacTaggart has been quite a welcome distraction from some of the other nightmares much closer to home. Yes, you have met some of my family before." By squaring straight up to this, Murdoch disarms her audience and wins their allegiance for the talk to come.

Her personal story is the spine of her speech. Her love of television is intense. “It has been my friend, comfort, window to the world, a source of ideas emotions and experiences,” all of which shape who she is.  As a child, an outsider, TV helped her understand the culture she’d been transported to. As a teenager she could not stop watching  MTV. Of course, neither could most of the people in the room. She bonds with the audience by listing the shows they all grew up with, and praises that era of "socially and politically astute television" whose true purpose is to build human connections.

She is honest about her father’s help with her career, but there’s a refreshing reality to her description of starting work at Australia’s female-free Channel 9; followed by a stint as one of only two non-Mormons at Fox in Utah; time at BSkyB, when she couldn't understand what anybody said; and her decision at 26 to go out on her own, with her father’s skeptical support.

If you are not in the TV business, a lot of her speech may be bamboozling. But some of her messages have wider resonance: She believes in TVs power to enliven and enrich. Always put the audience first. A company needs an explicit statement of values based on a sense of purpose. It’s best to have investors with like minds – that’s why she sold Shine to News Corp (“I can hear you thinking ‘No Shit, Sherlock’”).

Towards the end of the speech she takes issue with what her brother James said in 2009, and this is what made the headlines. She disagrees with his attitude to the BBC, instead praising its openness to harnessing creativity.  Where he said the only reliable guarantor of independent news coverage was profit, she calls profit without purpose "a recipe for disaster." And she describes the "unsettling death of integrity across so many of our institutions," an obvious reference to News International, and to the politicians and police who are implicated in the phone hacking scandal. “The absence of purpose, or of a moral language within government, media or business, could become one of the most dangerous own goals for capitalism and for freedom."

Murdoch uses some homey homily. She says the industry spends too much time fighting over crumbs when "we should be baking a bigger cake."  She cites the Olympics, happening just a few weeks after the speech, as the best example of how collaboration and competition can co-exist, and says that is the industry embraced the mindset of the Olympians they’d be world champions in a digital age. She’s more compelling when she’s talking the intricacies of media strategy, because her true power is in her business experience, where we easily get the feeling she plays the game well.

Her speech was described by some as a pitch to be the heir to the family's empire. Listening to her presentation might or might not lead you to that conclusion.  What you will take away is the understanding that this is a businesswoman who knows what she’s doing.

What can speakers learn from Elisabeth Murdoch?
  • Acknowledge audience concerns. Candour begets trust. If landmines are lurking, or skeletons are hiding in cupboards, you can win the audience over by dealing frankly with them.  It’s better to be upfront than to leave obvious issues unaddressed. Murdoch does this professionally and tactfully, which saves embarrassment for everyone.
  • Decide how you want the audience to see you. Murdoch constructs a strong professional persona and supports it consistently throughout.  The line about what to wear is her only really personal remark. Her passion for her business is clear and stories from her life and career are only used to explain it. She acknowledges the help she got from being a Murdoch, but she takes credit for what she has done herself. She is respectful of others, and generously offers "lessons learned" for the good of the wider industry. 
  • Work with your setting. Murdoch gives a static presentation -- there’s no choice. It’s an hour of voice and voice alone, standing on one spot, a hard task for anyone. She’s a slow speaker, and deliberate. She sounds well rehearsed and she keeps the whole audience constantly under her gaze. There’s not a lot of scope for variety in this format but her gestures are limited and they become repetitive. It might have been a good idea to put her hands away altogether and gesture only when it assists with emphasizing or illustrating a point. I’d rather she were a little livelier and there was more variety and animation in her delivery, as it would offer some relief in what is a very long lecture.  However she certainly sounds authentic and that’s the most important thing of all.
You can read the full text of Murdoch's speech here, and watch it in the video below. What do you think of this famous speech?