The art of finding your voice without knowing what you want to say

Decisions are not always innately right or wrong; the way they are presented affects their intrinsic quality.

Ed Miliband delivering his conference speech
Ed Miliband delivering his conference speech. Photograph: Getty Images

It is conference season: political reputations are being made and revised. But which reputational shifts will endure and which will morph back into their original shape? The most eye-catching performance was that of the Labour leader, Ed Miliband. His speech was a paradox: he was strikingly different, and yet very much himself. That is the key to understanding how he has evolved.

Until now, Miliband’s major speeches have been awkward, sometimes painfully so – he seemed to be almost outside his own body, watching rather than being himself. No longer. The central difference about his speech in Manchester was not content, coherence or even clarity. It was tone. He spoke with what seemed to be his own voice. That impression will endure.

In an insightful editorial, The Times argued that Miliband “announced himself as a politician not to be written off”, but the speech remained“ a missed opportunity” because it failed to articulate why people should vote Labour.

Political insiders may share that reading. But for the wider public, the lack of detail will not matter at this stage. As an essential first step, Miliband had to change the perception that he was ill at ease with leadership and, crucially, the means by which he achieved it. In the past, his faltering public performances have exposed him to the damaging interpretation that he still felt lingering guilt about pushing aside his elder brother as leader. The more he struggled to be himself, the more vulnerable he became to the damning verdict that he would never escape the shadow of political fratricide.

Looking good

In Manchester, Miliband looked relaxed and sounded confident. Above all, he seemed authentic. He urgently needed to demonstrate those essential qualities. Without them, other political virtues won’t even come into play. In this instance, body language, tone of voice, the projection of self-confidence – they were the signal rather than the noise. People watching on the television who made the snap judgment, “He now looks the part,” were exactly right.

So, what made the difference? How did Miliband find his voice? Practice and training, certainly, played a part. But it is not true that media training is necessarily about spin and concealment. The best type of public persona is a recognisable version of the private man. You do not become a good communicator by pretending to be someone else, but instead by becoming an enhanced version of yourself. It is revealing that some leading Conservative pundits acknowledged that the Manchester conference speech was the first time Miliband demonstrated in public the qualities he often shows in private.

But it is a mistake to assume that authenticity follows from rigorous and forensic analysis of what we believe and why. People are often at their most authentic without quite knowing how or why it was achieved. “When she speaks without thinking,” Norman St John-Stevas said of Margaret Thatcher, “she says what she thinks.”

Indeed, Miliband’s least authentic moments came when he laboured to tell everyone “who” he was. In contrast, his best moments followed when his character and personality were allowed to emerge for themselves.

As Matthew Arnold put it in this untitled poem:

Below the surface-stream, shallow and light,
Of what we say we feel – below the stream,
As light, of what we think we feel – there flows
With noiseless current strong, obscure and deep, 
The central stream of what we feel indeed.

Politicians can stumble upon their best themes not through logic, but because they sound most natural. Argument sometimes follows from tone, rather than vice versa. “How can I know what I think, until I see what I say?” asked W H Auden. It is possible to find your voice without knowing beforehand quite what you want to say.

Can you really lead without knowing where you are going? It is here that the complexity of leadership works against simplistic rules. For there are several strands to leadership, strands that are both uncorrelated and yet intertwined.

First, a leader is a decision-maker, he must decide on a course of action – and it obviously helps if he is proved right more often than he is wrong. Secondly, a leader must also be an advocate of his decisions: he has to persuade others that he is right (even when he isn’t).

View to a skill

Furthermore, those two skills are entirely different – there is little evidence that good decision-makers are naturally good at persuasion, or that good persuaders are inevitably good at decision-making – and yet they are inescapably interlinked. In a human sphere such as politics, the degree to which you can persuade people to implement a decision affects whether the decision will be proved right or not. Decisions are not always innately right or wrong; the way they are presented affects their intrinsic quality. As the theatre director Peter Hall said to the former England cricket captain Mike Brearley: “I’ve heard bad directors give excellent advice and get terrible results, and I’ve seen good directors give awful advice and get excellent results.”

Where does all this leave Miliband’s speech? He showed a gift for inhabiting an argument without articulating the shape of the argument itself. Perhaps he didn’t feel able to scrutinise his general perceptions too closely: had he dug more deeply, and followed his own logic further, he might no longer have been able to have such confidence in it. It is one thing for Miliband to gain easy clap lines by criticising Tory unfairness, quite another to keep Labour supporters happy when he tries to explain how he will make their lives better without having any money to spend. The right tone takes you only so far.

When Miliband left the stage at Manchester, one thing had become clear, though. David Cameron, who often performs best when he is in a tight corner, knows there has never been a more important moment to find his authentic voice as Prime Minister.

Ed Smith’s “Luck: What It Means and Why It Matters” is published by Bloomsbury (£16.99).