Friday, October 13, 2017

Famous Speech Friday: Theresa May's interrupted speech

We've had a cascade of prominent women speakers being interrupted this year--and that's not a mistake--but UK Prime Minister Theresa May's speech at the Conservative Party conference seems to have been a big, juicy target for a grand interruption.

This was the kind of interruption planned well in advance, and carried out early in her remarks. Why? I can think of a few reasons:

  • for optimal visual treatment, so that it would play well on video and television
  • to start silencing her message early
  • for maximum disruption during the speech, enabling a mass media and social media frenzy, and
  • to force a discussion about whether her supposed poor performance during a high-profile speech indicated that she should step down as Prime Minister. 
Call it interruption as coup attempt, if you will. That's certainly what it looked like to me.

The grand interruption was done by a known "prankster," an innocent-sounding  moniker for something with such dire consequences. That became part of the spin on this incident picked up by the media. Why not heckler or interrupter? He attempted to hand May a large-format (aka suitable for cameras) British version of a "pink slip," indicating termination of employment, with the comment, "Boris [Johnson, her foreign secretary and sometime rival for the top job] asked me to give you this."

The interruption took advantage of the fact that May was already nearly hoarse with a bad cold, not helped by having had given dozens of media interviews, as you do when you're the prime minister at a party conference. The speech itself, seen as a chance to stabilize a shaky hold on power, was long--it runs to 23 pages as prepared for delivery, which makes it about an hour in length. That's ambitious for any speaker, let alone one with a bad cold going on. But the combination meant the rest of her speech was marked by sniffles, people handing her cough drops, and sometimes starting applause to give her time to recover her voice. When the lettering on the stage set behind her started to fall apart, it was just part of the larger failure metaphor that had already begun.

We've looked at other May speeches here on the blog, and there's no question that she can be a forceful and effective speaker, despite efforts to dub her "Maybot" as a mocking of her speaking style. And you may recall our analysis, done when she and Hillary Clinton were both cabinet secretaries, that we seem to spend more time talking about distractions and drowning out their messages when they are asking for something like higher public office, or here, renewed support in a current top role. So the interruption laying the groundwork for a possible coup attempt didn't surprise me in the least.

Nor did the ridiculous sexist piling on that began almost instantaneously, another sign of the very planned nature of this grand interruption. She was mocked. Words in the speech echoed those in a speech from the television show The West Wing, which speechwriters are perhaps too prone to watch on repeat. It was reported that she left the stage and went to weep in the arms of her husband, and her husband was named on the pink slip in a reference to asking him about their taxes, both sexist tropes. "Poor Theresa May" was a frequent characterization, often from those who oppose her political views. Her supposed imminent resignation had to be denied throughout the day as coup-planners and rivals emerged with biting comments. And the hyperbolic Piers Morgan dubbed it the biggest speech fiasco in political history; I challenge readers to send me real examples of that, but don't think this qualifies for anything but nastiest coup attempt.

Because of course, what this interruption did was to take her message away and silence her. It's about the coup and about silencing, not about her.

Laying aside politics and the fact that you are not, perhaps, a prime minister yourself yet, what can you learn from this famous speech?

  • It never hurts to anticipate a heckler and how to handle it: You don't need to be famous to be trolled as a woman speaker, and when in doubt, you can always use my all-time favorite debate line from Ronald Reagan: "there you go again." In this case, as the comedian who pulled off the interruption is famous for doing them to others, it would have been apt and dismissive. I'll add it's also nigh unto impossible to pull such a thing off without having thought about it in advance, so allow some prep time for just this unfortunate purpose. You'll feel and look stronger in response if it does come up.
  • Barrelling through to the end is an unfortunate measure of the speaker: This is especially true when you're the prime minister, but in general, we put a lot of unfair pressure on speakers with these unwritten rules along the lines of "the show must go on." The best you can do is know that in advance, and again, plan around it, even down to having something to say to indicate that you'll keep going if they'll settle down and listen.
  • If you're facing even a small coup attempt, some back-pocket lines and humor may help. A famous option is writer Mark Twain's "reports of my death are greatly exaggerated."
By the end of the new cycle, coup attempters were proudly outing themselves and reports began to signal admiration for May's ability to get through the experience, despite the difficulties. But the damage may have been done. 

In full: Theresa May's speech to conference

Changes to the housing and energy markets were among the key announcements in a conference speech which was interrupted by a prankster and the PM struggling not to lose her voice.

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