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Boris Johnson speech: what went wrong at the CBI?

Analysing a Boris Johnson speech is challenging at the best of times.

But the one he gave to the CBI this week is a perfect case study for any of our crisis management training courses.

It makes for painful viewing.

The Prime Minister was addressing businesses in the north of England.

He stumbled over basic sentences.

He lost his place for 21 seconds.

At one point, he imitated a car’s engine.

It was bizarre.

There may well be more going on behind the scenes than we know.

But let’s analyse what happened.

And what you can do differently if you ever find yourself in a flap.

Fail to prepare, prepare to fail

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I believe there’s an underlying issue with this car crash of a speech.

A lack of preparation.

The Prime Minister had a speech written for him, but he likely skim-read it in advance.

In the moment, he attempted to wing it.

And the awkward, fumbling results grabbed the headlines.

There were three main things that went wrong.

Let’s take each of them in turn, and look at a solution for each.

1. Losing his place

boris johnson speech, presentation skills, cbi speech

For 21 seconds, Boris lost his place.

The agonising clip has done the rounds on social media, being shared thousands of times.

If you’re yet to see how it unfolded, here it is.

Mr Johnson had been slowly losing his place for a while.

Struggling to end sentences, taking paragraphs in unexpected directions.

And eventually, he ran out of steam.

For 21 seconds he shuffled his papers, attempting to find the next section.

All the while exhaling loudly and muttering ‘forgive me‘.

Part of this, as mentioned, comes with a lack of preparation.

If you’ve prepared properly, you’re likely to know what comes next even if you lose your place mid-speech.

But what if disaster strikes, and you’re completely thrown off track?

First, stay silent. 

Avoid the apologising and the loud sighs.

A clear sign to your audience that you are beyond lost.

Second – and this comes with the prep – format your speech properly.

Use headlines IN BIG BOLD PRINT on your notes.

Your eyes will be drawn to them, making it easier to find your next point.

And third, remain calm as the seconds go by.

It will feel like an eternity is passing as you search for the next section.

In reality, it’s a matter of seconds.

Your brain tricks you into thinking it was much longer.

2. Umming and ehhing

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This is a classic speech pattern that can be difficult to untangle.

It’s another sign to your audience that you’re uncomfortable.

Or that you’re making it up as you go along.

And unfortunately for the Prime Minister, he ummed and ehh’d throughout the speech.

The reason we make these noises is that as humans, we dislike leaving gaps of silence.

We demonstrate over the phone that we’re thinking by saying ‘ehh‘ before we reply.

If we’re silent, it can prompt the person at the other end to ask if we’re still there.

But leaving gaps of silence while public speaking is the right technique.

This can feel awkward at first.

Our brain is searching for a word to end the sentence.

And we’re grasping at thin air.

As tempting as it is to umm and ehh as you look for the word, simply pause.

Leave a gap.

Be comfortable with the silence.

It’s a sign of a confident presenter.

3. Misjudged ad-libbing

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In his CBI speech, Boris compared himself to the Biblical character Moses.

He made car engine noises.

And, as many news headlines covered, he told a long tale of a trip to Peppa Pig World.

I find it very hard to believe that those last two examples were written into the speech.

They distracted entirely from the key messages he was there to deliver.

And it demonstrated why ad-libbing must be done with care.

As well as reinforcing how the best ad-libs are actually well-rehearsed, planned points.

So how do you ad-lib effectively?

First of all, consider in advance additional points you’d like to make.

Ones which, if included in the presentation or speech, would feel out of place.

But they would still work to reinforce one of your key messages.

These should be story or statistic-based, which are much easier to remember than sweeping statements.

By the time you’ve worked your way through this story (the more familiar you are with it the better), you’re likely to have found your place again.

This is pretty much what Boris attempted to do with his Peppa Pig World story.

Trouble is, he was clearly making it up as he went along.

And, because it was the wrong audience for it, the story lacked impact.

Secondly, avoid imitating a car engine.

Or making any onomatopoeic noises in your speech, for that matter.

They’re usually only acceptable after a few drinks with friends.

Rather than in front of an expectant business audience who have come to hear you speak.

A prime example

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Dissecting a Boris Johnson speech from a communications standpoint can be difficult.

He breaks many of our Golden Rules.

And this week with the CBI, the cracks in his presenting style were magnified.

I suspect there’s more going on behind the scenes with Boris.

Someone suggested on Twitter that being a new parent may have a part to play.

As well as recent political decisions which backfired.

That said, his errors were basic and avoidable.

And the standard fell immeasurably below what you’d expect from a global political leader.

Whether you’re a Prime Minister or a programme manager, public speaking skills are life skills.

If you’re looking to improve your own or those of your team, email us.

Or if you’d rather learn via video modules in your own time, buy an e-learning course.

They’re available at the Pink Elephant Academy.

Time to invest in you.


Colin Stone is Communications Lead at Pink Elephant.

You can read more about him here.


Boris Johnson speech blog written by Colin Stone.
Photos in Boris Johnson speech blog by UK Prime Minister on Foter and Pink Elephant Communications.
Boris Johnson speech blog edited by Andrew McFarlan.

Boris Johnson speech blog

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