As our new UK Prime Minister Liz Truss settles into her role we’ll be seeing her more frequently giving set piece speeches and at the despatch box in the House of Commons.
As a member of Toastmasters International, a public speaking club, I have given many speech evaluations over the years, providing verbal feedback to speakers. Let me shares some analysis of our new PM’s speaking style and compare it to that of her immediate predecessor.
Speaking persona and humour
Johnson’s confidence and blarney are clearly centre stage. He uses a wide range of humour; self-deprecating or subtly self-aggrandising, to deflect criticism rhetoric. He frequently uses hyperbole, alliteration, florid metaphors and sometimes flaunts his classical education. His Peppa Pig digression during a CBI speech was widely reported as odd but creates headlines and is part of the Pratfall Effect where calculated mistakes aim to build rapport with his base. His famous riposte to Tony Blair who urged the British people to rise up and resist Brexit was to tell the British people to rise up and turn off the TV when Tony Blair came on. Classic Boris.
Liz Truss uses humour much more sparingly and she doesn’t seem to take to it easily. She joked about her penchant for Claire’s Accessories in the leadership debate, but it felt out of her comfort zone. You wonder how she will cope at the despatch box over the next couple of years. She may surprise us with her adaptability. Given the focus on policy, facts and absence of self-reference, humour and irony, we can safely say that she is less of a showman than her predecessor.
Demeanour and posture
Boris Johnson’s dishevelled shabby demeanour and his slight stoop when he speaks is familiar to us all. Whether this is authentic or a calculated ‘contrived insouciance’, much of his personality serves to demonstrate that he is an outsider to formal structures (though ironically being someone with a very Establishment upbringing), flouting political correctness and breaking protocol.
Liz Truss looks very different. She has a very upright posture and seems the epitome of rectitude. She is plain speaking and seems to want to convey a serious statesmanlike image. On one of the recent TV debates, she wore a blue trouser suit, and seemed to be emulating former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher.
Boris Johnson is known for the animated nature of his gestures; he swivels his body round and shakes his frame to emphasise his points and often uses the classic closed fist movement to emphasise points. He is also not above finger-pointing in seeking to land his major points.
In her first speech as Foreign Secretary at the 2021 Tory Party Conference, Liz Truss did not once move her hands above the lectern. It may be that that was what was required in that first speech. However, in the leadership debates against Rishi Sunak, Truss was seen placing both hands out in front of her outstretched and shaking them quite emphatically. This gave a sense of passion, but overusing these gestures can betray an impression of exasperation and even of losing control. Not great for someone in such a pressured leadership position.
Boris Johnson has a Home Counties accent and appears to be bumbling along slightly garbling his words, this being a style which confirms his roguish persona. He then suddenly raises to a crescendo of mock indignation. He speeds ups, rattling off phrases and/or invective to ram his point home. It is worth remembering that Johnson debated at Oxford and that helped forge a combative style. This controlled irascibility, with a detached, ironic stance is redolent of Churchill whom Johnson idolises.
Liz Truss is more monotone in her speaking style, injects less emotion into her voice and looks less energised in general. When she modulates her voice, it is quite restrained and never quite hits the highs. Those who have previously worked with her suggest that her voice has dropped in pitch and has also slowed down. Truss has occasional attentional blinks where she seems unsure of what she is saying though, to date, she has recovered quickly.
If you compare two speeches, Boris Johnson’s on being voted in as Prime Minister in Summer 2019 and Liz Truss’s first speech on being appointed Foreign Secretary in September 2021, they are very different. Liz Truss focused very much on the policy headlines and what sets out what she intends to do. Johnson’s, on the other hand, was much more focused on a personal appeal and paying tribute to those who campaigned for his candidature and promising to steal all of Jeremy Hunt’s ideas. Boris employs oodles of pathos and humour which Truss does not do
It will be fascinating to see how the Truss speaking style evolve as she develops in her new and challenging role.
Chris Arning is a member of Toastmasters International, a not-for-profit organisation that has provided communication and leadership skills since 1924 through a worldwide network of clubs. There are almost 400 clubs and 8,000 members in the UK and Ireland.
Members follow a structured educational programme to gain skills and confidence in public and impromptu speaking, chairing meetings and time management.