Yesterday we saw Theresa May’s role as Prime Minister severely undermined. At the Tory conference in Manchester an audience member interrupted her speech and handed her a P45. In addition her surroundings began to collapse with signage dropping off the wall behind her and even her body turned against her, with a poor voice and cough stopping her speech flow. The poor speech delivery fed straight into the narrative that she is an embattled Prime Minister who has lost control of her government — she could not command a stage let alone the country.
But the events were wholly avoidable and had I been there things would have been different. Here’s why:
Understand What Matters
Speeches go wrong all the time, microphones don’t work, lighting fails and people forget their words. It is not automatically a disaster. Damage is done when there appears to be a lack of control over what is unfolding. When we see the person who has assumed control lose control, that’s when we the audience in the theatre or at home watching on TV feel anxiety and panic, on the speakers behalf.
During Donald Trump’s successful presidential election campaign more than once he was heckled and approached by members of the audience whilst speaking. These events did not undermine him because he took control of the situation.
“Who was in control? No one.”
Who Should Have Been In Control?
All events should have what is called a Master of Ceremonies, an M.C. This person not only introduces the speakers but they also assume control of the event. The audience agrees to be quiet and hand over control for a limited time only if the audience sees someone taking control. Think back to when you were at school and a teacher entered the room and everyone kept on talking regardless. The teacher failed to assume control so the children kept on talking. An audience respects people that have control.
What I Would Have Done, Were I M.C.
An M.C. is a master of dealing with the unforeseen. Last year I was the M.C. at over 100 events during which time people tried to sing and forgot their words, presentations did not load successfully onto projectors and on one occasion a ceiling collapsed.
Had I been at the Tory conference I would have sat as close as possible to Theresa May, next to the stage. (For this to work the security detail would have needed to make space for me as they would have taken-up many of the front row seats — the security response on the day is another topic altogether). I would have blocked the the audience member who handed the Prime Minister a P45 and asked about his actions, giving the security detail time to establish motives.
Back in 2011 Rupert Murdock was giving evidence to a Parliamentary Select Committee when a member of the audience accosted him. At the time there was no MC but there was his wife Wendi Deng. She speedily stepped in and stopped the member of the audience from striking Rupert Murdoch with a cream pie. Theresa May needed a Wendi Deng or, an MC.
The coughing fit Theresa May experienced is not that uncommon. People can get through it if they look like they are simply having a coughing fit. The danger arises when they have not exuded sufficient control beforehand and a coughing fit makes them look vulnerable. If the coughing continued for too long as MC I would have entered the stage, asked for the microphone to be switched off and allow time for the Prime Minister to recover. If need be I would have addressed the audience whilst a recovery took place.
Fixtures and fittings falling down during a speech is unquestionably unwelcome because it is a distraction. In this case it may have symbolised something more; the Prime Minister’s reign crumbling. Had one letter dropped I would have thought it unfortunate, had two letters dropped I would have mentioned the event to Theresa May. Otherwise she would have been left at a disadvantage not knowing what was going on behind her. Had she been told about the signage I suspect she would have made a quip about the standard of workmanship and handled that event well.
As I mentioned previously at one event of mine a ceiling collapsed caused by a flood from a floor above. No one was hurt and the speaker continued their speech, I left the room, notified building staff and then re-located everyone next door. Not one person passed comment on the incident, in large part because I was not flustered and I kept control.
Many forces conspired against Teresa May at the Tory conference. The absence of an aide or MC intervening on the day is part of why she now looks like a Prime Minister on borrowed time. Government is a team effort, so too is putting on a piece of theatre, so too is giving a speech.
Originally published at andrewtollinton.com on October 5, 2017.