In a speech to her conservative party conference this week, British Prime Minister Theresa May had to deal with several problems at once. May had a persistent cough, a falling sign, and a prankster who walked up to the podium and handed May a P45 paper, the form Britons turn in when they leave a job.
I watched the entire speech. There were several places where May could have turned the problems into opportunities to engage the audience.
1. Acknowledge the problem and keep it short
Coughing is a human moment and we all get it. Instead of diving into her script as soon as she stepped up to the lectern, May could have gone off-script and said:
"I apologize in advance for my cough. I didn't want to cancel this speech today because I believe our party has the best ideas to build a better Britain. I will keep it short, however, which will surely please my critics."
If May had ended after twenty minutes--the amount of time I recommend for a strong speech, she would have been fine. The problems began to cascade as the speech went longer. The first twenty minutes of the speech was well-written and her voice held firm. By thirty minutes, her cough was getting worse. After thirty-five minutes, the prank happened and here is where May lost another opportunity to turn a negative into a positive.
2. Use self-deprecating humor
May kept reading from her prepared script as the man tried to hand her the resignation form. This only reinforces May's critics who have called her "Maybot" for her robotic delivery. Instead, she could have had fun with it. For example, May's "penchant for jazzy shoes" have been the source of jokes in the past. She could have taken the paper from the prankster, pretended to read it, turn to the audience, smiled and said:
"I've been handed a note. Breaking news. The gentleman wanted to let me know that my shoes are trending on Twitter. Thank you!"
To be fair, May did make light of the situation with a Tweet and a photo showing her speech alongside a case of cough drops and medicines on your desk. It was well-timed and helped to distract from the critical headlines.
Self-deprecating humor is disarming. It may have helped Ronald Reagan get re-elected in 1984. Reagan's opponent was democratic challenger, Walter Mondale. After their first debate, stories began to circulate that Reagan's age was wearing him down. Reagan, an exceptional communicator, was ready the second time. He was armed with a joke. He just waited for the opportunity to deliver it. When a reporter asked Reagan a question about his age and fitness for office. In perfect comedic timing, Reagan said:
"I will not make age an issue of this campaign. I am not going to exploit, for political purposes, my opponent's youth and inexperience."
The quip had even everyone laughing, including Reagan's opponent. Age was no longer an issue and Reagan won the debate and the election.
3. Tell a story to show your human side
After an hour into May's speech, the cough grew more persistent, May was handed a cough lozenge. Soon after, a letter from sign in the background fell to the ground. At this point, a speaker has no choice but to stop and tell a story. Steve Jobs once did this brilliantly in 2007, during the iPhone launch.
Jobs was delivering the presentation when the clicker stopped working. It was an awkward pause. What Jobs did next was pure gold. Jobs calmly asked his assistants to fix it. During the wait, he calmly turned to the audience, smiled, and told the following story:
"You know, this reminds me, when I was in high school, Steve Wozniak and I made this little device called a TV jammer. It was this little oscillator that put out frequencies that would screw up the TV. Woz would have it in his pocket. We would go out to a dorm at Berkeley, where he was going to school, and a bunch of folks would be watching "Star Trek." He would screw up the TV, someone would go to fix it, and just as they had their foot off the ground, he'd turn it back on, and then he'd screw up the TV again. Within five minutes, he'd have someone like this." [the audience roared with laughter as Jobs contorted his body].
Theresa May is aware that people want to see her human side. Earlier in her speech said, "I know that people think I'm not very emotional. I'm not the kind of person who wears their heart on their sleeve."
In today's society, "authenticity" matters. People want to see a leader's human side. From time to time, leaders should take the opportunity to show others that there's more to them than what's written in the press.