Unless you’ve been living under a rock you’ll have seen how badly Theresa May’s speech to the Conservative Party Conference went.
First off let’s reiterate just how important the leader’s speech is at any political conference. It’s the only bit anyone outside the conference really pays attention to. In recent years they’ve become dull because party leaders simply cannot afford to mess up so they play it safe. If you want to find the last Leader’s conference speech that was as disastrous, you have to go back to 2003 and Iain Duncan Smith’s infamous “quiet man” speech.
Mrs May took to the stage with all the usual pressure and then some. This year’s was even more important as she recently led the party to a disappointing General Election result, there’s tension in the cabinet and Brexit negotiations don’t seem to be going well.
With that in mind it couldn’t have gone worse.
You’ll have read about the voice loss. You’ll have read about the sign falling apart directly behind her. But the part of the speech that got the most coverage was undoubtedly when comedian Simon Brodkin gave Mrs May a P45, supposedly from Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson.
Look at that! That is brutal! It’s iconic and it’s going to follow Mrs May around for the rest of her political career. There’s not much she could have done about the sign falling apart and sure, she could have rested her voice to try and avoid the cough, but once it started she could only struggle through. The one thing she had full control over was (as the stoics tell us) her reaction to the stunt.
Ignoring the question of how a man got that close to the prime minister, May’s reaction completely fed into the image of her as an unemotional character. By all accounts she is a very warm person but in this instant we can see a microcosm of how people perceive her. Distant. Staring ahead. Droning relentlessly on.
Eventually she took the P45 from the comedian, placed it gently on the floor and continued on with her speech. As he was escorted out by security, she tried a joke about Jeremy Corbyn but by then the whole thing had gone on too long and it didn’t really land.
While Mrs May is undoubtedly damning every comedian under the sun, any comedian worth their salt would be able to tell her how to have handled it. This guy was just a heckler. I’ve worked with loads of comedians and they all have their own ways of dealing with hecklers, because being heckled is a part of being a comedian, it’s a skill they have to learn. The best advice I’ve heard for hecklers is “cut them off early and use the crowd”.
To explain what that means, let’s imagine the situation had gone differently. Imagine if instead of trying to ignore the comedian, May had reached down, taken the P45 out of his hand and spoken directly to the crowd. Remember she’s addressing conference, this is her crowd, it’s the heckler who’s in enemy territory (this is the same with comedians and their hecklers). Now imagine May had said to the crowd something like “This man wants to hand me a P45, but I say we’ve got too much work left to do, are you with me?”
The crowd would have gone wild for it. If May had ripped up the P45 while she said it, the party faithful would have torn the roof off the place and the press coverage would have shown May as triumphant, not awkward; victorious, not embattled.
It’s easy to think of what you should have said in hindsight of course and if I’d been in May’s shoes I might have just cried when I saw that P45, but there was a moment where she could have turned it around, she just didn’t have the skills for it.
I think there’s a really important lesson to be learned here, one that has come up already in my studies and that’s the importance of creativity. Suggesting to the Prime Minister of the UK that she sit in on a comedy class would probably have you laughed out of the room, but May has for a long time had the communication problem of seeming like she’s incapable of reacting to other people naturally and in that context comedy classes could be a creative solution to a genuine problem.
So my question is this; What’s the most creative/left field/wacky solution to a communication problem that’s worked in real life? Tweet, email or comment, I’ll update if I find any really good ones.
Jason Ashford is studying for a MSc in Communications and Public Relations with Political Lobbying at Ulster University. He can be found on Twitter @jasonashford89.