How to talk yourself and others into and out of trouble

Two contrasting FT stories illustrate the importance of self-image and presentation in leadership, whether in business or politics.

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Nov 07, 2017
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Advice from comedian and performance coach Viv Groskop on How Theresa May can fix her vocal delivery and public speaking, applies to senior executives too.

The UK Prime Minister’s excruciating election campaign was made so much worse by her inept public speaking. Ms. Groskop writes: ‘Her voice is not assured. Her eye contact is shifty. It is hard to focus on her words because her delivery is so distracting. It is painful to see a woman on a public platform with so little authority.’ While Margaret Thatcher was taught by a National Theatre voice tutor recommended by the great Laurence Olivier, captivating both friends and enemies, and Michelle Obama ‘speaks with expression and emotion without ever overdoing it,’ Ms May sadly provides a poor example to ‘younger women who aspire to lead.’

According to voice coach Caroline Goyder, an expert on stage paralysis, Ms May lacks energy. ‘…Her clarity of thinking is not communicated powerfully enough for the role of prime minister.’ Powerful leadership demands focused self-expression.

May’s posture ‘cuts off the breath support and reduces the power and resonance of the voice.’ Her diplophonic voice ‘alternates between two tones simultaneously, giving it a slightly wobbly effect.’ But the wider problem is tension in the neck, shoulders and mouth, which makes her appear embarrassed about what she’s saying. ‘The voice has to be honest and authentic or we will read the lack of congruence as dishonesty.’

By contrast, consider the self-belief displayed in Dick Fuld’s quiet comeback on Wall Street. The head of Lehman Brothers was responsible for the biggest corporate collapse in history, in 2008, but has now established a new private wealth and asset management partnership to exploit ‘opportunities in a flawed and highly fragmented financial services market.’ This unwarranted self-confidence trick was evident during Congressional hearing into the financial crisis, when he blamed Lehman’s collapse on ‘looser lending standards, homeowners who used their homes “like an ATM” and regulators who “mandated” the firm’s bankruptcy.’ Nothing to do with him, of course.

Finally, if effective storytelling—about yourself or someone else—is indeed key to success, then Amy Goldstein’s gritty tale of a Wisconsin town, Janesville, is worth reading. In describing some of the catastrophic damage caused by Mr Fuld et al, and throwing light on Donald Trump’s subsequent political ascent, it is a worthy winner of the FT-McKinsey 2017 business book of the year.

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Paul Lewis

Editorial director, Headspring

Paul Lewis is a writer and editor, specialising in business, management, economics and politics.