Pity poor Theresa May. As the Prime Minister of England, she’s been going through a tough patch – self-inflicted, to be sure, but a tough patch – since her most recent election setback. I say self-inflicted because she called the election (something you can do in the UK when you think that your party is in a strong position) in the hopes of winning more parliamentary seats in order to strengthen her hand in negotiating the UK’s exit from the EU, also known as Brexit.
Unfortunately for her, the opposition came on strong and her party lost seats to Jeremy Corbyn, the head of the Labor party. He was considered to be headed nowhere fast before the campaign, when he unexpectedly started to shine, largely at the expense of May, who ran a lifeless campaign.
All of that was bad enough, but last week she was scheduled to speak at her party’s annual conference – roughly equivalent to the American Democratic or Republican conventions except they happen annually – and things really went south.
As she spoke, a comedian handed her a mock dismissal notice mid-speech. She forged gamely on, and probably didn’t even notice that the sign behind her, which read “Building A Country That Works For Everyone,” suddenly lost the “F.” It simply fell to the ground, instantly becoming an ironic commentary on May and her programs.
But her troubles weren’t over; in fact, they were only beginning. She (perhaps understandably) began to lose her voice, having to stop and cough, drink tons of water, get a cough drop, and so on, all to no avail. She finished the speech sounding like someone at political death’s door rather than a vibrant leader of her party and country.
Now, all of this is actually not a substantive rebuttal of anything that she is doing, and indeed the several incidents – the comedian, the signage malfunction, the coughing – are not really news. But the incident teaches us several important lessons about public speaking, especially for public figures, which are worth noting.
First, there is already a public narrative about you, if you’re a public figure. Incidents that feed this narrative will be reported, and incidents that don’t, won’t. All these amusing malfunctions were reported because they fed into the current public narrative about Prime Minister May in the press that she has been struggling as a leader, with the poor campaign showing, the election loss, and indeed the overall difficulties associated with Brexit.
Second, the show must go on, even when it can’t. The Prime Minister had no choice – she had to keep speaking, even though she was losing her voice. And so the people in the hall were subjected to a painful, hoarse performance with many halts for water and lozenges that did little good – because she had to keep going.
Once she started, that is. Could she have made an announcement (earlier that day) that she was under the weather and that so-and-so would give the speech instead? Perhaps, in an earlier era. Today, politics everywhere is personal, and a withdrawal would have fed the narrative that she was losing her grip, so perhaps it wasn’t really an option, either. The show must go on, in fact, even when you can’t.
Third, in the Internet era, you’re only as good as your last (reported) performance. The echo chamber of the 24/7 news cycle and the Internet magnifies silly incidents like the one that the poor Prime Minister suffered into major events. We see the video clips over and over again. We form impressions of political figures and world leaders based on the combination of these ongoing narratives and the latest incidence of the story. But we don’t hear about the continued professional existence of someone like May outside of the context of the fundamental narrative. There are too many stories and too many events to keep track of the ones that don’t fit the story line.
Even more insidious than fake news to the average citizen’s public awareness of what’s going on around her is the unexamined media narrative.