Public Speaking Lessons from Steve Bannon of all people

Steve Bannon was more convincing during Saturday’s Munk Debates. (Be it resolved, the future of western politics is populist not liberal…)

Between Bannon and David Frum, in both form and content I give Bannon the better score, at least for their 8 minute opening arguments. And believe you me, I did not see that coming. But here’s why:

Form: How they look and sound

In his delivery, Bannon comes across as more relaxed than Frum. His voice is full, deep. He ends most of his statements low, and he uses a lot of pauses, especially after key phrases. He smiles a bit. He looks to me like a belly breather. This is a great asset in public speaking. Belly breathers are able to keep themselves out of the fight or flight response. They look calm and unruffled. They often take a full breath between thoughts, which gives the listener time to process their words. Bannon looks like he trusts himself. So strangely I trust him more. I don’t like it, but there it is.

In contrast, Frum does not look or sound relaxed. His voice sounds tight, he is stingy with his air. There is rarely a pause–he is always quick to get to the next point after he makes one. He looks like a chest breather. He is almost gasping for air at times. This is not a reassuring delivery that instils confidence. I find myself wanting to agree with his words, but the overall sense I get is that he is all in his head, and he’s just trying to convince me — that he doesn’t necessarily believe what he’s saying himself. He speaks quickly in a way that makes me feel a bit frantic. He is looking at his notes a lot, which tells me he doesn’t trust himself. All of this makes me trust him less. Less than Steve Bannon?! Sadly, yes.

Content: What they say

Most importantly, Bannon states his key argument 12 seconds in. Right off the top he gives us his thesis statement, his bottom line, saying,

It’s not a question of whether populism is on the rise or whether populism is going to be the political future. The only question before us is ‘Is it going to be populist nationalism or populist socialism?’

We get to attach everything else he says to this central argument. It focuses the listener. Then Bannon repeats this thesis statement at the end. As one should. We need to hear these things a few times. Auditory processing is hard. Repetition helps.

Conversely, Frum finally gets to his thesis statement after the SIX MINUTE mark. After an eternity of prelude (which includes Frum listing off Steve Bannon’s accomplishments), he finally states,

“Why will this populist movement lose and why will our Liberal institutions prevail? This new populism is a scam. It’s a lie. It’s a fake. It has nothing.” Ok great, but why didn’t you say that sooner?

Six minutes later, we finally get his central point. I think he even calls it the bottom line (although he says that so rushed that it’s unclear.) We shouldn’t have to wait so long for the thesis statement. We are left floundering, trying to process every little bit of his presentation and get to the crux of it ourselves. So those six minutes have been much harder and much less effective than they could have been. And our first impression has already been set and hardened.

When I work on a presentation or a speech with my clients, I start by asking them, “What’s the bottom line?” Then I have them put that at the top. And then repeat it a few times throughout. Auditory processing is hard. Repetition helps.

And just zip it and breathe once in a while. It helps convince us that you trust yourself, so then maybe we will too. Because these days, we need good people to be the ones we trust.

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