The best way to appear sincere? With an autocue

Most of us have buckled under pressure when speaking in public, notes Michael Simkins

Natalie Bennett, the leader of the UK's Green party, suffered a brutal example of just how difficult it is to speak off the cuff when she undertook a radio interview last week to discuss her policies. Justin Mills / AFP
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If politicians seem a trifle glassy-eyed when speaking in public, it’s little wonder. Their main preoccupation is not in arranging their thoughts and arguments, but in ensuring they don’t lose their place.

The ubiquitous autocue machine is found wherever politicians have to convey their message, and the slickest operators have turned their use of such technology into an art form.

When Barack Obama allows his professorial gaze to meander back and forth as he talks to the world’s press, what he’s actually doing is merely darting his eyes from one screen to another. The result is sincere, fluent, immediate – and utterly artificial.

I’ve used an autocue many times, and it takes both skill and practice to conceal the artifice. But while it may have reduced public oration to little more than an exercise in basic reading, is it any wonder politicians rely on it so heavily, especially when their every word is scrutinised in minute detail?

Sometimes, however, politicians have to venture beyond the prepared statement and engage in live debate and it’s this that separates the experts from the rookies.

Which brings me to Natalie Bennett, the leader of the Green party, an emerging political force in the UK. Poor Ms Bennett suffered a brutal example of just how difficult it is to speak off the cuff when she undertook a radio interview last week to discuss her policies.

It all started well enough, with Ms Bennett trumpeting her party’s pledge to build 500,000 new homes if elected.

“Where would you get the money for that?” asked Nick Ferrari, the interviewer. It was at this point that Ms Bennett’s faculties decided to go walkabout.

“Well, it’s sort of … the whole costing,” she responded wanly. When pressed for more detail, she continued: “Right well, erm, you’ve got a total cost … erm … that will be spelt out in our manifesto.”

“So you don’t know?” suggested Mr Ferrari. “No, well, er …” was Ms Bennett’s hapless response. I could go on, but suffice to say that during the longest three minutes of her political life, Ms Bennett’s answers consisted of little more than variations on a few stock phrases.

Indeed, she might still be there now, caught in an endless loop of second-hand platitudes.

Fortunately, her survival instinct kicked in and she was able to bring their exchange to a close by breaking into a fit of uncontrollable coughing, an act which brought her some paper tissues and a brittle expression of sympathy from her inquisitor.

“Do you think you might have genned up on this subject a little more?” asked Mr Ferrari when she’d finally recovered.

“Uh, I think we’re talking here about a whole range of issues ...” she began, and we were nearly off again. Thankfully, Mr Ferrari cut short proceedings so as to spare her further punishment.

While it was undoubtedly a chastening performance for Ms Bennett in her new role, it was also impossible not to feel ­profound sympathy for her plight.

Most of us have, at one time or another, buckled under pressure when speaking in public, whether giving a presentation at work or merely speaking at a friend’s wedding celebration.

The mind can play terrible tricks when it is put under strain, and with luck, Ms Bennett will have got her nightmare moment over with early on in this year’s long election campaign.

For her sake, I hope so. With the prospect of joining such heavyweights as David Cameron, Ed Miliband and Nick Clegg on a live TV debate in a few weeks time, she will have to sharpen her act and her memory if she is not to become a political laughing stock.

Either that, or the Greens are going to have to invest in her very own portable autocue.

Michael Simkins is an actor and writer based in London

On Twitter: @michael_simkins