So how could Ed Milliband have avoided the debacle of the forgotten content in his conference speech this week? Very simply, as it turns out. By being more humble and by obeying the first rule of public speaking – it’s all about the audience, not the speaker.
Ed’s made the ‘no notes or autocue’ his trademark presenting technique, and there’s no doubt that it’s an impressive feat, when it works. This time it backfired, resulting in a performance which was ponderous and repetitive. It lacked energy in many parts and felt more like a second run through rather than the real thing.
The problem, as I see it, was that Ed (and his team?) were fixated on the ‘no notes or autocue’ idea (and the positive media comment it might attract), to the detriment of the audience. The primary focus seems not to have been how to get relevant content to them in an engaging and memorable way. It was all about putting on a show. A gimmick.
It would have been better to sacrifice a little of the stage craft in favour of impact, brevity and conciseness. Would the audience/media have complained if Ed had used discreet notes (small cards for each section of the speech, colour coded?), perhaps placed on a small lectern/water table close to him on stage? He could easily have consulted them during the applause. This would have positioned him as a professional, well prepared and confident speaker. The speech would have been better; the audience would have been more engaged and content would not have been forgotten.
I’m often asked, in the training room, for my opinion on the notes/no notes issue. And the answer is simple – if notes will lead to a better experience for the audience, bring them on. After all, the presentation’s not for your benefit, it’s for theirs.