Friday, August 12, 2016

Famous Speech Friday: Theresa May's 1st prime minister's questions

In the United Kingdom Parliament, there's no greater show than Prime Minister's Questions, commonly referred to as PMQs. The country's constitution calls for it, and currently, it happens every Wednesday at noon for about a half hour. And it's simple, really: The sitting prime minister stands before the House of Commons and answers the questions of its members.

Put another way, it looks like this: A chamber with soaring ceilings, jammed with 650 Members of Parliament, both houses present, both main parties (and a few others) present. The government party on one side, the opposition facing them. Really, people seated on all sides.

If you don't like taking questions from an audience, think about this one, loaded with politics, causes, gotcha moments, objections, counter-arguments, surprises, and the specialty of the house, the unanswerable questions, all lying in wait. This audience of parliamentarians does not merely sit and listen. It participates in full cry, with disorderly behavior that's now well-known--so much so that the sessions are watched on livestream around the world and tickets for the public gallery in high demand. Questions are allotted to the leader of the opposition party, and other members also may sign up to be randomly selected to ask their questions. And of course, the sessions are recorded and transcribed. Nowhere to run, nowhere to hide.

For the prime minister, of course, it's both a speaking challenge and a speaking opportunity. There was no easy entry for the new Prime Minister, and none of the topics were easy ones: economic austerity, housing, poverty, Brexit, immigration, and more. But the session offers her a frequent and focused opportunity to defend her policies and counter accusations, answering challengers in the moment. BBC Woman's Hour, the morning of May's first PMQs, had a discussion about issues women might face being heard in such a forum.

To the surprise of many who see the new prime minister as a hard-working public official lacking flair, she more than held her own in this forum, sometimes referred to as a "bear pit." May made jokes and humorous asides, put down arguments, and answered most of the questions posed, avoiding one about her appointment of Boris Johnson as foreign secretary and his racist and sexist comments about U.S. President Barack Obama and former Secretary of State and presidential candidate Hillary Clinton.

Among her most-quoted statements in this first outing was this description of the opposition leader, Labour's Jeremy Corbyn, as a bad boss:

I suspect there are many members on the Opposition benches who might be familiar with an unscrupulous boss; a boss who doesn't listen to his workers; a boss who requires some of his workers to double their workload; and maybe even a boss who exploits the rules to further his own career.
Then, as the BBC noted, "Leaning forward and fixing Mr. Corbyn with a direct stare, she added: "Remind him of anybody?" The workload reference comes from the mass resignations of Labour leaders following the failed Remain campaign supported by Corbyn, which means a greater workload for the shadow ministers who remained loyal to him. It's a clever comparison, and in its simplicity, one that might resonate with the viewing audience better than a long, boring explanation of the actual politics.

After Corbyn's first question to her, she noted, "I thank the right hon. Gentleman for the welcome he has given me. He referred to me as the second woman Prime Minister. In my years in the House, I have long heard the Labour party asking what the Conservative party does for women. Well—it just keeps making us Prime Minister."

Prime Minister May ended this day with another high-stakes appearance with German Chancellor Angela Merkel in Germany for a get-to-know-you meeting in advance of Brexit discussions. The New York Times shared this tidbit from their public appearance before the press, another example of the new leader's public-speaking style that hit the mark:
Initially, the two leaders appeared tense, and, as Ms. Merkel opened with her remarks, she occasionally glanced at Mrs. May, who kept her eyes ahead, listening intently to the translation. 
But, when asked about their first impressions of one another, Mrs. May broke into a wide smile and responded that, "We have two women here who, if I may say so, want to get on with the job and want to deliver the best possible results for the people of the UK and of Germany." 
The chancellor, after pausing for a moment to hear the final words of the simultaneous translation, turned to Mrs. May with an equally broad smile and said, "Genau," German for "exactly."
One thing is certain: With weekly question time on her schedule--just think about that, will you?--the new prime minister will have plenty of time to gain even more expertise with live Q&A, but she appears to be off to a strong start. What can you learn from this famous speech?
  • Plan on a strong start: Rather than ease your way in edgewise, or hope to demonstrate strength eventually, it's essential for a woman leader to demonstrate strength right out of the box, particularly in a form like this one. Begin as you mean to go on.
  • Observe the format and the niceties: There are rules of engagement for this formal question time so you'll see in the transcript of the video use of formal titles, questions that begin with "May I…", and thanks for the questions before the answer is put forth--all good rules in general for Q&A. The niceties are more than a flourish: They provide boundaries within which all hell may break loose, but beyond which it won't go. That provides reassurance to the audience as much as the participants. And if you are the person who's being put on the spot, the niceties allow you a few more seconds to think while you thank, a vital advantage in this kind of back-and-forth.
  • Get comfortable in your own shoes: Prime Minister May has had many years of public service in which to get comfortable with her positions, how she is viewed, and what her opposition has in store for her. And it shows. It's a good reminder for the rest of us that, before you step on stage to speak, it's well to get comfortable in your own shoes so you're ready for whatever comes.
Here's the transcript of the full session, and the video is here and below:
Theresa May Faces Parliamentary Colleagues in First Prime Minister's Questions

(Creative Commons licensed photo by UK Parliament)

Join me in Edinburgh, Scotland, on October 20 for a new workshop, Add Meaning with Metaphor: Improve your Speeches with the Most Powerful Figure of Speech. It's a pre-conference workshop at the Edinburgh Speechwriters and Business Communicators Conference, designed to help both speakers and speechwriters use this powerful tool. You can register here for just the workshop, the conference, or both.