The Internet loves Scotland’s 20 year-old new SNP MP Mhairi Black. Her maiden speech has gone viral and has people thinking that there may be hope for politicians and politics in a landscape over-populated with cynicism, spin-doctoring, self-interest, doublespeak, factionalism, egomania and crooked opportunism.
Mhairi’s maiden speech cut through this miasma of mediocrity. I have watched it several times and here is what I think she did so successfully:
- She was authentic. Whether you agree or disagree with her politics, you know that this was NOT a piece of confected, scripted, party line. She spoke from the heart but with her head equally engaged. So unusual is this in many parliaments today that she stood out like a beacon.
- She laid a foundation of graciousness and decency. Her tribute to her predecessor who had served her constituency for many years was sincere and genuine. There was not even a hint of gloating or party political grandstanding. From this point on, she ‘had’ her audience. We all wanted to know what else this young woman had to say.
- She was funny. You don’t need to be a professional comic to deliver a great speech or presentation but a light touch and some self-deprecating humour rarely goes amiss.
- She was principled. Mhairi clearly stands for something and is motivated by more than naked self-interest. Her speech was not ‘all about her’, but about the people that she serves as an MP. In her and Tony Benn’s words, ‘Be a signpost, not a weather-vane’.
- She had listened and learned. As she mentioned, she had spent her first months as a new MP, not arguing, not heckling other members, not making sure that she was vociferous and ‘noticed’, but LISTENING. In an era when everyone feels the need to opine loudly on everything, regardles of their experience or understanding, this was a gale of fresh air. Audiences want to know that you know something, not that you think you know everything.
- She reached out in collaboration. This was not just more of the same political attack, criticism and point-scoring. She offered collegiality and collaboration to those Labour members on the ‘other side’ of her politics. You even believed that she would make the same offer to the government if it was for the benefit of her constituents and if it sat with her principles.
- She had a story and an example. Policy and governmentspeak can be arid zones, but when she spoke of her constituent who had been deprived of his benefits as punishment for being 15 minutes late for an appointment, having starved and dehydrated himself to the point of collapse to even get there, policy and ideology became all too real. If you are trying to cut through a complex area or idea, make sure you have an example or story that everyone will ‘get’.
- She had practiced. This was no spur of the moment spouting. Nor had she just turned up barely prepared to even utter her name. She had clearly thought about this, written herself notes and practiced what she was going to say. And, wow, did it show. There was scarely an ‘um’ or an ‘err’ let alone an ‘Oh my God’ or ‘I was like….totally!’ And did I mention that there was not ONE powerpoint or Prezi slide involved? There will be a direct correlation between the quality of your presentation and how well-prepared you are. Don’t even think about ‘winging it’.
- She was magnificently brief. Hallelujah. This stunning debut took under 8 minutes and she did not waste a second of that time. Remember this the next time someone offers you a conference slot or presentation opportunity of 15 or even 30 minutes. Don’t be so precious that you think, ‘I couldn’t possibly present my work or ideas in that amount of time’. If you can’t, it’s not the time that’s at fault.
We will be thinking about and discussing this maiden speech for many years. Will your next presentation be as memorable?