Guardian: How to be heard - the art of public speaking

Over the years, comedy scriptwriter Heidi Ellert-McDermott must have put thousands of words into mouths more famous than hers. But even she didn’t find it easy to stand up and make a speech at her own wedding.

“Even though I felt like I’d written a good one, I was still surprised on the day that I was nervous,” she recalls. “I suddenly found myself thinking, ‘Whoa, it’s my turn’ and the nerves overwhelmed me. It’s only now that I understand a few techniques people should use – and one of them is not alcohol.”

The Labour MP and former education minister Kevin Brennan doesn’t have the traditional background some might expect for a former president of the Oxford Union. The son of a steelworker and a school dinner lady, both of whom left school before 16, he was the first child from his school to get into Oxbridge. But as Brennan puts it, “Being from south Wales I was used to the idea that you should be able to orate, to speak, to use language to persuade people. And one thing I did feel going into that environment as a young man was that most of the people who went to university weren’t geniuses, but a lot of them had been imbued with a great degree of self-confidence, not always justified, by their educational backgrounds.”

He resolved, he says “never to let that group of people lord it over others because of that confidence”. What the union gave him was the chance to learn from the cream of guest speakers. Brennan still remembers the former Tory MP Matthew Parris giving a “brilliant” speech about being gay, without ever specifically mentioning that he was gay (this was after all the early 80s), and the formative experience of debating alongside Neil Kinnock: “I learned from him how to use a little bit of humour to make your point – Neil was very good at that – and something about the rhythms of speech. He was of that old-time, chapel-preacher-from-the-valleys tradition, brilliant at speaking without notes.”

Brennan taught for a while after graduating and introduced a debating club to the comprehensive he worked in. “What I tried to do was to say, ‘Yes, it’s important to be able to present your views on world peace or whatever, but actually what really matters is if someone challenges your views, can you defend them?’ Because that means you understand them.” It is this ability to confront and dismantle counter-arguments, rather than simply clinging to the line, that arguably distinguishes political sheep from goats.

You can read the column in full here.