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The Most Important Thing That Trumps All When Presenting

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Status trumps everything when you’re speaking to a crowd? How can that be true? Does status trump the story? The preparation? The visuals? Well if you want to influence a crowd to your point of view, then I’d say a definite ‘yes’.

It doesn’t matter how well crafted all of the story is, if you fail to connect with the people in the room.

Tony Blair, then the UK Prime Minister, went to speak to the formidable ladies of the Women’s Institute (WI) in June 2000. The WI is a conservative body of middle class women who know what they like, and is not the most natural audience for a socialist Prime Minister. He made the mistake of using the occasion as an opportunity to tell the world how well the Labour Party were doing in their first term of government.

He missed a clear chance to build his popularity in middle-England, to say nice things about the WI and all that they had done over the years. He could simply have spoken a few words about their proud history, the role of women in society, business and families, he could even have thanked them for all great things they do for charity. But he didn’t bother. On this occasion, Mr Blair just launched into a scripted set of platitudes, promises and abstract nouns about how well he and his government was doing, and by 5 minutes into the speech he’d lost the crowd of ladies in the red plastic seats.

What happened next? It was breathtakingly thrilling and embarrassing. The ladies of the WI got restless, then they got angry. They started slow hand clapping the PM. Yes. they turned into a set of twin-set, blue-rinsed protesters. They were wolf whistling, jeering, singing clapping and generally doing everything they could to get the red-faced man in the red tie off the platform. Tony was hopeless. He’d massively misjudged the audience and they let him have it, big-style.



It was unmissable television for each of the 1550 occasions the broadcasters repeated it over the next few days. I enjoyed it too and I was a fan of Blair the man, if not Blair the platform speaker. On that occasion, Tony talked down, at, over and through his audience. On that day he paid the price that those of us who’ve done the same thing probably never have to pay. Why? Because our typical audience tends to be much more passive than the Women’s Institute.


If Tony Blair can make that mistake we all are in danger

What happened to Tony? How did the UK Prime Minister, known for his charm and mass appeal get it so wrong? He just made a human mistake in the ‘dance’ of status. He overestimated his own importance in relation to the audience in the room, and underestimated theirs. They felt angry at being so ‘reduced’ in status and they bit back, as crowds often do.

He might have been the PM of the UK; in anyone’s language, an important position. But did that trump the audience’s status as members of the WI, professional people, wives, mothers, and just people who did not liked being talked over. Obviously not. Because they objected to being treated as mere ‘props’ for Mr Blair’s self-promotion.

He got the status bit wrong, and every other element of his speech came crashing down around his ears as the WI reminded him of their status and re balanced it for the world to see. Watch the video above to see this perfect demonstration of the power of status when addressing crowds of strangers.


So how can understanding ‘status’ help us become more flexible presenters?

The Oxford English dictionary defines status as

The relative social or professional position; standing.
synonyms: standing, rank, ranking, position, social position, station, level, footing, place;

What is the origin of the word? It comes from the Latin: the condition of standing, stature, status, equivalent tosta- (variant stem of stāre to stand) + -tus suffix of v. action.

So ‘status’, for the platform speaker is about how they rank themselves in relation to their audience and how their audience ranks the speaker in relation to their own standing. There are really only three options in any such relationship between the performer and the people in the crowd:

1 – I’m their superior in some way

2 – They are my superior

3 – We are equals


Why is status so important?

As speakers we need to get into a position to influence our audience with our ideas and our arguments, and in order to do that we need to adopt the perfect position for the audience and not for ourselves. We need to be flexible with our own status. There really is no right or wrong approach, but there are dangers inherent in each assumption. Let’s think for a while:

  • What might happen to the speaker who assumes that she is the audience’s superior?
  • What might happen to the speaker who assumes that her audience are her superiors?
  • What might happen to the speaker who assumes that the audience are their equals?

In all three of these cases, problems occur only when there’s an imbalance in expectations between the speaker and the audience.


A Pompous Ass

I once interviewed a UK Cabinet Minister (very senior position in government) for membership of a sports club in London. He wanted to join, I was the voluntary membership secretary, and it was my responsibility to interview everyone who wanted to join to make sure that they understood that the club was a co-operative, and that there was no place for silly rules, titles and conventions as there are in so many such organisations.

I was representing the members. The Minister wanted to join. My job was to ask questions and welcome him to the club on behalf of the other members. I started off a little nervously, after all I had never interviewed a member of the government before and I asked something like,

‘This must be difficult for you, being interviewed, I”m sure it’s usually you asking the questions isn’t it…’

I was going to go on and say something self-effacing like,

‘I’ll try to make this as painless as possible, we only want to talk about your love for the game of XXXXXX…’

To show a little respect for a much older and wiser soul. But he didn’t let me. He interrupted me and said,

‘Can you just get a move on, I’ve got far more important things to do today. If I’d realised that I’d have to be vetted before I’d joined, I wouldn’t have bothered…’

He might as well have slapped me in the face. His resentment and discomfort with being treated like an ‘ordinary’ member was obvious and awful to see. I was embarrassed at his rudeness and annoyed too. By raising his own status with such rudeness, he ground my nose into the dirt and reminded me that I was a nobody. Which I already knew, and I was trying to defer to him.

What resulted? I deferred my decision and let the Chairwoman make up her mind. I got a email about it a week later from the Chair and she wrote 3 words.

‘Pompous ass. Declined’.


Get your status right – don’t speak down. Or up

There are three ways to get the dance of status wrong, and I’m sure the experienced presenters reading this will instantly be able to think of times when they, and others they’ve seen, get it wrong. Here’s those three ways:

1 – We do a ‘Tony Blair’ and  talk down to our audience and they don’t like it, just like the cabinet minister in the story above, because very few audiences like being talked down to. Whether they’re kids or adults, captive or free.

2 – We do a ‘Uriah Heep‘ in that we ‘talk up’ to our audiences by putting ourselves down, and they don’t want us to. In that we treat them as our superiors when they want to speak to an equal. As a general rule, if we undersell ourselves, our audiences will accept our inferiority without question, and when was the last time that we bought anything from someone who seemed to have no confidence in their own status as an authority?

3 – We treat the audience as our equals when they see themselves as their superior. This is quite common in my world of selling professional services, where some clients are very comfortable in their role as ‘corporate God’ and expect to be treated with reverence and deference as default. If I’m honest, this is the status mistake I’ve made a few times myself. It occurs when you’re pitching to an audience who think that they have a higher status than you, and you, in your language, your words and your presence show them that think that you are their equal. Some clients can find that assumption offensive because, as Richard Gere says in ‘Pretty Woman’, more ‘grovelling‘ can be an effective way of selling to a particular type of client.


Every presenter struggles with status from time to time

We all get it wrong sometimes, don’t we? Once you’re a confident and experienced presenter, the content can kind of take care of itself. But the crucial thing, the element of the whole that will decide the outcome of the presentation, more than any other element, is getting the relationship with the audience right. It’s such a subtle thing, that it can be hard to achieve, even for people as skilled as Tony Blair. If we’re honest:

  • Sometimes even the best of us treat our audiences as clueless observers and fail to consider their experience, intelligence and needs in preparing what we want to say. Sometimes we fail to respect them, forget to honour their ‘status’ and sometimes they bite back. More often than not, they don’t ‘bite’ like the WI, but they don’t listen, respond or ‘buy’ whatever it is we’re saying or selling.
  • Sometimes we do ‘undersell’ ourselves in the room, giving too much respect away to our audience, who are secure enough to want us to meet them as equals, and…
  • Sometimes, mea culpa, we fail to do enough grovelling.

Beyond a certain stage of skill it’s really hard to become a ‘better’ presenter technically. The gains of structure, storytelling, visual thinking, rhetoric and performance will take us so far. After that then the challenge is that we become a more flexible presenter. Happy in all kinds of rooms, with all kinds of people, with all kinds of needs.


The ‘dance’ of status

The ‘dance’ of status then is the constant re-positioning of speaker to audience and audience to speaker throughout a speech, so that the speaker can position herself in the right way for the audience at each part of the speech so that her message gets heard. Let’s look at a real case study to explore this ‘dance’.

Here, Bill Clinton makes a hugely important speech to nominate Barack Obama for President of the USA for his second term of office. Clinton knows that the speech will be televised live to 50 million Americans, and at least half of that number will not be Democrats, so he needs to be very careful how he positions himself to them for fear of offending them. He knows that if he offends them, then the likelihood is that they will vote for someone else and not for Obama.

Watch the video and notice what he does to lower his own status at the start of the speech, and raise the status of almost everyone else. The audience sitting at home, the women all over America, Michelle Obama, Barack Obama, Republicans and ‘fellow Americans’. It’s a deliberate ploy to make the audience feel like we are more important than him. To position himself as a friend, or an equal who is simply sharing his views, rather than a hugely important political figure ‘telling’ the people at home what to do. He never, at the start of the speech, at least, ‘tells’. He offers, shares and discusses things to make it seem like we’re equals, and he does it brilliantly.



To be that good at playing ‘the status game’ and using our status to help the audience receive our message in the right way for them, more than anything else a speaker must be aware. She must realise that there is such a thing as ‘our status’ and ‘their status’ in order to do anything about it. And let’s face it there are plenty of speakers out there who are blithely unaware of anything other than their own experience.


The basic rules of status for speakers – part 1

1 – Don’t assume anything but be prepared to be flexible

2 – It’s safer to give your status away than take theirs – so start kind, respectful and gracious and earn the right to your place on stage

3 – It’s safer to raise the status of your audience – like Clinton always does

4 –  Don’t use self-deprecating humour unless you’re the most senior person in the room because the audience just might believe you.

In the next posts in the series, we’ll explore the link between a speaker’s ‘internal status’ (How important they think they are) and the speaker’s ‘external status’, (How important they actually are to the audience) to get even more understanding of how we can become much more flexible as presenters in the hard, cold world of work; and we’re delighted to have a post from Marianne Fleischer about her work to help executives to build their skills and confidence in this area by using challenging and original improvisational techniques from the world of stand-up  comedy.

Jim Harvey

Jim Harvey

Managing Director at The Message Business
Jim is a serial entrepreneur and the MD of The Message Business, a company which helps international and FTSE 100 companies sell themselves, and their products more effectively. Jim has many years of experience speechwriting, presentation coaching and motivational speaking, all over the world.
Jim Harvey
1 Comment

1 Comment

  1. Jack Vincent

    10th December 2016 at 1:01 pm

    Great post, Jim, and a lot fir me to think about.

    Since I usually speak about a specialized area, I may go in with utmost respect for the audience generally, yet over-indulging myself specifically. I’m not condemning myself (yet) but I will study myself in this aspect.


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