The racist, xenophobic, and thoroughly buffoonish Major from Fawlty Towers once pronounced that he ‘hates Germans…love women.’
‘What about German women?’ asks Connie Booth, mischievously.
‘Good card players!’ is the Major’s immediate response.
When we watched Angela Merkel talking to parliament this afternoon, we looked at each other and were grateful we weren’t the gambling types.
Dr Merkel had to say something – but what? She is the most careful of politicians, seldom putting a foot wrong, seemingly sitting on just the right side of the line whenever it’s called. It may look ad though she is merely lucky in the cards she’s dealt; in reality, there’s no denying that she’s a canny player.
Here are the lines that really made us sit up and (to really push the metaphor) hang onto our chips: ‘Some expect my speech to pave the way for a fundamental reform of the European architecture which will satisfy all kinds of alleged or actual British wishes. I am afraid they are in for a disappointment.
‘Others are expecting the exact opposite and they are hoping that I will deliver the clear and simple message here in London that the rest of Europe is not prepared to pay almost any price to keep Britain in the European Union. I am afraid these hopes will be dashed.’
Talk about playing your cards close to your chest! The Chancellor was gracious, polite, spoke for half an hour, and ultimately landed this entirely ambiguous message on the British politicians from all parties.
Leaving the carefully-chosen words to one side, the inscrutability was enhanced by delivering the speech from behind a lectern, and in a foreign language via a translator (though she topped and tailed the speech in English, the bulk was delivered in German).
Contrast the treatment of Francois Hollande earlier this year. If Dr Merkel got a prime position at Casino Royale, the French President had to be content with a (metaphorical) game of shove ha’penny in a (non-metaphorical) pub. That meeting was not a success, and as M. Hollande headed home, leaving David Cameron propping up the bar, you just knew he quit before things got ugly: no doubt some aide said the French equivalent of ‘Leave it, Frank, he ain’t worth it.’
What’s the lesson? Manners are a good way of hiding your intentions. The more formal the occasion, the less likely you are to stray from the narrow path of what is expected of you and into the fertile soil of what you really think. When we put on our formal outfits for a black tie event, we dress more than our bodies: our behaviour and language are modified too (at least, until the free bar has been thoroughly abused). If you’re performing a function, your behaviour is even more tightly proscribed.
If a look or a smile or a half-joke can give you away, a script on a lectern in a foreign language is a good way of remaining mysterious. And the reverse is also true: if you want to connect, get your opinion across, appeal to the audience, ditch the physical barriers, make eye contact and paint you colours bold. Combining the two, you may be able to control the message the audience receives from you. Guide the audience, frame your message in a particular way to emphasise certain features, and crop the inconvenient or irrelevant facts. And hopefully the sympathy of the audience will be pushed towards you like poker chips.
PS Programmes deliver presentation skills, TV and radio media training and crisis media management, tailored to the needs of our clients. This article also appears on http://www.presentationskillsprogrammes.co.uk