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As a public speaker, how do Liz Truss and Boris Johnson compare?

By Chris Arning, Toastmasters International

Moral authority to lead is often earned through being a good speaker. In the US Presidential system approval ratings always get a substantial bounce after the media deems something an impressive speech. In the UK it’s no different. Even in this era of spin, misinformation and half-truth, we cannot resist the blandishments of words skilfully put together and delivered.

So, what sort of public speaker is our Prime Minister Liz Truss?

As a member of Toastmasters, a public speaking club, for 5 years I have delivered countless speech evaluations and even won the odd evaluation contest. Having caught some of the leadership debates on BBC and ITV last month I thought I might compare Liz Truss’s speaking style against that of her immediate predecessor Prime Minister Boris Johnson. Here are some observations

  1. STAGE PRESENCE

Much has always been made of Boris’s dishevelled shabby demeanour and the way he slightly stoops when he speaks. It is all part of his, ‘too cool for school’ character. Whether this is a sort of calculated ‘contrived insouciance’, or the real deal, generally much of Boris’s personality serves to demonstrate that he is an outsider to formal structures (though ironically of course having a very Establishment upbringing), breaking protocol and flouting political correctness. His eccentric antics and sound bites are perfect tabloid fodder. Many suspect these tactics are used to demonstrate that he is not just a politician but his own man.

Liz Truss, on the contrary, speaks with a very upright posture and appears to be the epitome of rectitude. She is earnest and plain speaking and stands up appearing to give a statesmanlike figure.  This is what you might expect from someone from a humble background who does not have the notoriety and media exposure Bojo established through his time as a scandal-courting journalist and as Mayor of London.  Liz Truss seems to want to convey a serious statesmanlike image. On one of the TV debates, she wore a blue trouser suit, leading to accusations that she is seeking to emulate former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, someone whom she admires.

  1. SPEAKING PERSONA

Boris’s blarney and confidence are clearly to the fore. These have helped him to deflect a lot of the accusations he received at the despatch box. He uses all sorts of humour; self-deprecating or subtly self-aggrandising, to deflect criticism. He frequently uses hyperbole, alliteration, florid metaphors and sometimes even flaunts his classical education. He is happy to make himself the butt of the joke. His Peppa Pig digression during a CBI speech was widely reported as odd but creates headlines and is part of the Pratfall Effect whereby calculated mistakes build rapport with one’s base. This schtick undercuts the seriousness of the message to connect with a mass audience. 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. This is classic Boris.

Liz Truss uses humour much more sparingly and it is not something she seems to take to easily. She joked about her penchant for Claire’s Accessories in the leadership debate, but it felt out of her comfort zone. It seems Truss is to humour as cats are to swimming – they can do so if forced to, but they’d prefer not to! You wonder how she will cope at the despatch box. But she may yet surprise us with her adaptability, as Theresa May did when she took readily to savaging Jeremy Corbyn. 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 and more of a technocrat.

  1. VOCAL VARIETY

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 will speed up and rattle off volleys of phrases and/or invective to ram home his point. It is worth remembering that Boris 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, having written a biography of his life.

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.

  1. HAND GESTURES

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.

  1. SPEECH CONTENT

Greek philosopher Aristotle in his famous book Rhetoric, says “Of the modes of persuasion furnished by the spoken word there are three kinds. The first kind depends on the personal character of the speaker; the second on putting the audience into a certain frame of mind; the third on the proof, provided by the words of the speech itself”. 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. The latter 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.  He plays the buffoon and then satirises that image to curry favour. Currently, Liz Truss does not employ humour or pathos.

Conclusion

As pointed out by Sam Leith, in the book You Talkin’ to Me? linguists talk about the phenomenon of ‘accommodation’ – how all speakers adapt their language to fit into a speech community.

British politicians since the 1960s have sought to pander to the mainstream by ‘dropping class’ – hence Tony Blair using glottal stops and David Cameron was widely mocked for referring to himself as ‘Dave’. BoJo does this more slyly by playing a bumptious public schoolboy. But Boris Johnson’s use of rhetoric was always quite polarising. As Leith writes, “That has continued to be the central complaint against rhetoric ever since: that it gives the plausible ignoramus or the self-interested dissembler – the knave or the fool – power over the good and the wise”.

Nevertheless, by cultivating a loveable rogue schtick, Johnson built a strong personal brand. Liz Truss is less distinctive and has yet to fully lay claim to a signature. To her credit she has several times publicly conceded that she knows she isn’t ‘the slickest of presenters’. With the tough challenges ahead it will be interesting to see how her speaking style evolves.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR 

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. To find your nearest club, visit www.toastmasters.org

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