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Who is the best speaker in Parliament?

South Africa’s Parliament can be a noisy and exciting place - with some members being better speakers than others.

Monique Harrisberg of the The Voice Clinic has analysed speeches delivered by four politicians during the Debate on the President’s State of the Nation Address, in June and July of this year.

Here are her conclusions (based on the videos in the text):


President Jacob Zuma (replying to the debate): Zuma’s voice is clear and he does not mumble. His inflections are a little bit strange though; sometimes there is an upward inflection with some of his statements which makes things sound more like a question than a statement.

His eye contact with his audience is shocking and he sometimes smiles in inappropriate places. A smile is not necessarily appropriate in the middle of a serious discussion. When we communicate, the voice and the body language need to tie in to create one message. You cannot try to deliver an assertive message while you are smiling. The cohesion of the message is the key. The pace of his speech is also too slow.Mark: 6/10.

In the video below you can see:

* DA parliamentary leader Mmusi Maimane at 51:54

* EFF leader Julius Malema at 1:11:16

* IFP leader Mangosuthu Buthelezi at 1:31:30


DA Parliamentary Leader Mmusi Maimane MP: Maimane is a wonderful speaker. His pronunciation is excellent and he is articulate. He reminds me of US President Barack Obama. His use of gesture is good and he has a lot of potential.

Maimane could however improve his eye contact, and use even bigger gestures. He is on the right track to becoming a great speaker. As he grows and develops more status and becomes more powerful, it will probably come to him quite naturally. He could benefit from some intervention in terms of lowering the pitch of his voice and having a more trained approach to his speech. Mark: 8/10.

EFF Leader Julius Malema MP: Malema is quite a magnetic speaker. He very consciously has an open face when he speaks. His excellent eye contact gives him that extra power when he delivers a speech. He uses a lot of gestures and has a naughty glint in his eye which makes you think he is on your side.

Malema very cleverly uses the communications tools at his disposal. Of these four gentlemen, he is the one that most consciously uses the tools available to him.

Parliament has a clear dress code, and MPs must dress accordingly. Malema and his MPs are not dressing appropriately for an institution such as Parliament. If they want to impress in this forum, they must dress the part. Mark: 8/10.

IFP President Dr Mangosothu Buthelezi MP: Buthelezi is the king of mumbling. He did improve a while ago but it seems like he has slipped back into his old bad habits, in terms of public speaking. He needs to open his mouth and slow down when he speaks, and have better eye contact.

His image (visually) is wrong – it is too dark! He needs to wear a white shirt. If someone has a darker complexion, then you should wear a brighter colour to enhance that. If someone is pale with blond hair, for example, they should wear a stronger colour and not cream-colour. Mark: 4/10.

How to be a good public speaker - Q&A with Monique Harrisberg

QUESTION: What do you look for in a good speaker?

ANSWER: I look at the quality of the voice – one with resonance, that is easy to listen to and easy to understand. The voice should be varied and interesting, in terms of the pace of the speech. A person should not speak too quickly or mumble, as this means you run the risk of losing the content of the message you are trying to deliver.

On the other hand you also don’t want someone that speaks too slowly, such as President Jacob Zuma. Time is money, and we don’t have time for someone that takes too long to deliver a message or finish a thought or concept. Ideas and thoughts need to be projected and articulated fairly quickly ibecause audiences tend to get quite impatient.

Then also there is body language to consider: eye contact, the use of gesture and the image and dress of a person. People judge us on the way we speak, the way we look and the content of what we are saying. As much as 38% of every communication message comes through the quality of your voice. This means that if we mumble or speak with a high pitched voice we are projecting a certain message about ourselves and our audience to others. Content only relates to about 7% of the overall communication message. The balance comes from the image, body language and the use of gestures. When we look at politicians in parliament, it is the overall impression that is created that is key and not so much the content of the message they are delivering.

Q: Why the need to be a good speaker? What is the benefit of being a good speaker?

A: People judge us according to the way we speak; our voice is our calling card. You surely don’t want to hand someone a business card that is all crumpled and messy with coffee stains? Your voice sells you; it tells me where you have come from, what education levels you have reached, what mood you are in, your background, and so on. And that is how we project ourselves out there.

Just think of the old story of the supermodel who looked beautiful, but the moment she opened her mouth your view immediately changed. The first impression is created by the way we look, and then secondly by what comes out when we open our mouths. These days it is even more important, with all the competition that we have to face.

Q: What do you lose when you communicate badly?

A: You mess up the first impression you get to create! Remember, we choose the message we want to project. If we don’t have the skill or if we don’t know how to use our voice for example, we will be the victim of however we sound. But if we have the techniques and we know how to project ourselves and we know how to speak, and how to sell ourselves in different ways, we have a powerful toolbox we can use to our own benefit.

Today, for example, I can choose to portray an assertive and dynamic image. Tomorrow, when I have to negotiate with the unions, I want to come across as more relaxed and laid-back, warm and friendly. We can choose, because we would have command over our voice, our body language and how our image can work FOR us. If we don’t have this toolbox at our disposal, we lose that edge and that power. And this power is enormous; we should be able to use it for our own benefit.]

Q: In theory, can anyone be a good communicator?

Yes, of course. What we are talking about here are all skills that can be taught. They become natural at a later stage, but first one needs to learn how to do it. It is kind of like learning how to ride a bike: we are not born with that knowledge, but we can all learn how to do it. It is the same with voice and with speaking. Techniques and skills need to be learned.

Q: Is voice training and public speaking training only for CEOs and politicians? Or for the man on the street too?

It is for security guards, for receptionists, for tea ladies, for nurses and people in hospitals, lawyers, accountants, IT specialists, the list is endless. Every single person these days needs to be able to project themselves and to sell themselves. For example, the way that someone who works in the emergency services speaks could end up being the difference between life and death.

The Voice Clinic trained a large group of pilots from SAA a few years ago in how to deal with an emergency situation, on how clearly they must speak on the plane’s public address system. We did the same training for train conductors at Railcorp in Sydney, so that their staff could make clear and understandable public announcements about their service. It is not always about selling one’s self, but also about helping ensure that you deliver a clear message to whomever you are dealing with. Just think of all the doctors you have dealt with, and their poor bedside manner!]

Q: Can bad habits be ‘un-learned’?

A: Absolutely. Think of the old story of Pygmalion in My Fair Lady. Professor Higgins taught Eliza Doolittle to get rid of her cockney accent. These days it is a lot easier but it does require effort, focus and practice.

Q: If people could do three things to be better speakers, what would your tips be?

A: Focus on the quality of your voice, the use of body language and gesture, and the physical dress and image. That creates the whole package. If one of these elements is wrong, you will not deliver the perfect ‘package deal’. Relax, breathe deep, speak clearly, and don’t mumble. Be friendly!

* Monique Harrisberg is the founder and CEO of The Voice Clinic, a training academy specialising in voice, communication and public-speaking skills training.