Friday, July 25, 2014

Famous Speech Friday: Theresa May takes the Police Federation to task

I always thought it was odd that the initial focus when Theresa May took office was on her fashion choices instead of her policies, because Britain's Home Secretary is a decidedly unglamorous job. That's despite it being one of the four "great offices of state" in British government. The cabinet post is responsible for national security, immigration, policing, citizenship, and other internal affairs. But it's also seen as a poisoned chalice, the kind of appointment in which you're likely to be sacked for the deeds of others, as many of her predecessors have found. And May is one of only four women in British history who have held any of the four great offices. So the role's unpopular, and a woman in it unlikely. But you can now add "unyielding" to that list of adjectives, thanks to a speech she gave earlier this year to the Police Federation at its 2014 conference.

Noting that this would be her fifth speech before the group, May makes a straightforward start, saying, "In each of my previous speeches, I've had to deliver some pretty tough messages. I know you haven’t always liked what I've had to say. And to be honest, you haven’t always been the easiest of audiences." It signaled that this speech would be neither easy nor fun to deliver. After talking about past efforts to work together with the Federation, May enumerated 15 different scandals, negative trends, and official investigations of the British police, then shared some needed detail that would resonate with citizens:
Such behaviour – which I am told is often encouraged by the Federation – reveals an attitude that is far removed from the principles of public service felt by the majority of police officers. It is the same attitude exposed by HMIC [Her Majesty's Inspectorate of Constabulary] when officers, called to help a woman who had suffered domestic violence, accidentally recorded themselves calling the victim a “slag” and a “bitch”. It is the same attitude expressed when young black men ask the police why they are being stopped and searched and are told it is “just routine” even though according to the law, officers need “reasonable grounds for suspicion”. It is an attitude that betrays contempt for the public these officers are supposed to serve – and every police officer in the land, every single police leader, and everybody in the Police Federation should confront it and expunge it from the ranks.
May also used the speech to outline unequivocal actions her office would take immediately, but put the responsibility for reform on the police, reminding them they had a choice in the matter:
I do not want to have to impose change on you, because I want you to show the public that you want to change. I want you to show them that you have the best interests of the police and of the public at heart. But make no mistake. If you do not make significant progress towards the implementation of the Normington reforms, if the Federation does not start to turn itself around, you must not be under the impression that the government will let things remain as they are.
Press coverage noted that while she received polite applause at the beginning, she left the lectern to a silent audience. Her speech was described as having "stunned" them, even as it was hailed as a needed statement. But May also was said to have "shown more balls than the entire male ­population of ­Westminster could muster between them."  In another of our Famous Speech Friday posts, British classics scholar Mary Beard said in her speech on the public voice of women, "It is still the case that when listeners hear a female voice, they don’t hear a voice that connotes authority; or rather they have not learned how to hear authority in it." Why else reach for male anatomy to describe the power of her speech?

I think many speakers try to avoid speeches they know will be unpopular. Government officials don't have that luxury, and this speech didn't hurt May's support. Far from it: Just a few weeks after she delivered it, she surged ahead in polling as the person Conservative Party members see as their future leader (aka, future Prime Minister), an advance seen as a direct result of this strong statement. What can you learn from this famous speech?
  • Let your speech take, and display, responsibility: Having served as a senior public official in the Clinton administration, I know that speeches first and foremost have jobs to do. This speech delivers a serious and unpopular message about a government service that affects every citizen. The sense of responsibility is where its importance lies.
  • Be straightforward and persuasive: This is a speech without sugar-coating and flourishes. It minces no words. Read the text to hear how it hammers home its points. May makes use of Monroe's motivated sequence, a rhetorical structure that's important when you're trying to persuade. In the section of her speech subtitled "Police reform is working and crime is falling," she describes both the results of reforms and what would have happened without them, the "visualization" portion of the sequence.
  • Make your opinion clear: Opinions are so often dodged in public that it would take a mighty calculator to add up the many times speechwriters have been asked to write speeches without them. Not so this speech. Notice how May alternates between expressing her strong views in "I" statements and referring to the common goals in "we" statements. "I" statements underscore that the speaker is taking responsibility for her viewpoints. The "we" often refers to the government and the citizens, the affected audience not gathered in the room.
You can read the full text of May's speech here, and listen to the audio of its delivery here and below. What do you think of this famous speech?



I'll be leading Be The Eloquent Woman, my day-long workshop on women and public speaking, as a pre-conference session at the European Speechwriter Network's autumn speechwriters and business communicators conference in Amsterdam. The workshop is 23 October and the conference is 24 October. You'll learn how to speak with confidence, content and credibility to subvert the common expectations of women speakers. Go here to see more about the workshop and what previous participants had to say. Please join me!

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