Monday, 12 October 2009

When Tony Blair blew it with the Women's Institute

Tony Blair, then the UK Prime Minister, went to speak to the formidable ladies of the Women's Institute (WI) in June 2000. The WI is a conservative body of middle class women who know what they like and is not the most natural audience for a socialist (ish) Prime Minister. He made the mistake (and Tony often did) of using the occasion only as an opportunity to tell the world how well the Labour Party were doing in their first term of government. He missed a clear chance to build his popularity in middle-England, to say nice things about the WI and all that they had done over the years. He could simply have spoken a few words about their proud history, the great things they do for charity and how great their recipe for plum jam is. But didn't bother. The Reverend Blair just launched into a scripted set of platitudes, promises and abstract nouns and by 5 minutes into the speech he'd lost the old dears in the red plastic seats.

What happened next? It was breathtakingly thrilling and embarrassing. The ladies of the WI got restless, then they got angry. They started slow hand clapping the PM. Yes. they turned into a set of twin-set. blue-rinsed students. They were wolf whistling, jeering, singing clapping and generally doing everything they could to get the loser in the red tie off the platform. Tony was hopeless. He'd massively misjudged the audience and they let him have it, big-style.

It was unmissable television for each of the 50 occasions the broadcasters repeated it over the next few days. I enjoyed it too and I'm a fan of Blair the man. if not Blair the proselytising platform speaker. On that occasion, Tony talked down, at, over and through his audience. On that day he paid the price that those of us who've done the same thing probably never have to pay because our typical audience is much more passive than the WI. It doesn't change the fact that lots of us treat our audiences as clueless observers and rarely consider their experience, intelligence and needs in preparing what we want to say.

If you want to avoid Tony's mistake, present ideas and arguments in such a way that the style content and methods that you use are shaped for each unique audience you meet.  You need to ask the audience to describe to you exactly what they what need to know before you start to prepare. You also need to consider what (If anything) ou have to tell them and consider how you can resolve the inevitable tensions between what they want and what you need to tell them.  If you can't ask, then do the next best thing and use your imagination. 

Put yourself in their shoes and ask waht you'd like to hear if you were them.  I guess it's called empathy, and all the great speakers have it in spades.  Whoever is out there in the audience.  WI or not.

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