The answer to this question is a big ‘yes’, at least for most of them, most of the time.
Let’s take the Chancellor of the Exchequer’s speech last Wednesday. It lasted best part of 55 minutes, was crammed with statistics and he delivered it head down, clearly read and with no attempt to disguise the fact. Was it engaging? Possibly, but only in passing. Was he speaking to or speaking at (transmitting to) members of Parliament? Transmitting mainly. Will people remember what he said? A fraction at best.
So where did he go wrong, if at all? The Chancellor probably didn’t go wrong in the context of this talk, because he was giving it in Parliament and not elsewhere. Parliament is where the government speaks to the people and gets its name from the French word ‘parler – to speak’. As such, it is the only place where the government should communicate its key messages and few are more important than the annual budget speech. Here the Chancellor has to communicate the detail in person before a statement is published by the press and we all saw the furore when an ‘inexperienced journalist’ let the cat out of the bag ahead of the Chancellor.
The Chancellor can’t afford to make a slip, therefore, he has not option but to read out his statement, rather than talk from his notes. However, because this is a data dump, spoken communication is not the best vehicle. Far better would be a written statement handed to MPs, but that is not the way it is done and of course it would offer no theatre.
Had he adhered to the two most important and compelling behaviours of a powerful speaker, namely eye contact and pauses, he would have been in big trouble. Long pauses would have invited even more heckling, and because of where the government sits, any substantive eye contact would automatically have been with the opposition benches, which would have invited all manner of puerile response. So he was best to go easy on both.
In the rare occasions where party politics play second fiddle, politicians can speak with significant impact and gravitas if they use strong eye contact combined with pauses. Sadly few do, reinforcing the generally held belief that they can’t be trusted because the words and body language are not aligned. We all yearn for the honest politician, yet for many, ‘honest politician’ is an oxymoron. Spin and refusal to take responsibility have done much to create this impression, as does the baggage politicians acquire over time. Surveys show that many people agree with the government’s aim of bringing down the deficit, but when George Osborne’s name is linked to it, support drops off rapidly. Similarly, going back to the party leaders’ televised debates before the last general election, it mattered little how Gordon Brown, then Prime Minister, performed (dismal compared to the other two) because of all the baggage from his long tenure in office as Chancellor followed by Prime Minister.
So, the message here is – don’t look to Parliament or politicians for examples of how to be a good public speaker!
There are a couple though that appear to break the mould and two US presidents spring to mind, namely Clinton and Obama. However, perhaps part of this is that neither carry much baggage for the average British viewer.