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That Portillo Moment & Blair’s Victory Speech: how to fox a journalist and win over an audience. 2 July 2024

It’s come to be known as the defining moment of the 1997 General Election — the sight of a Conservative grandee, tipped as the next leader, losing his own seat to a wide-eyed Labour novice in Enfield Southgate.

The phrase ‘were you up for Portillo?’ refers to the fact that it happened at 3.07am.

I know this, because the BBC have helpfully posted the entire overnight election programme on Iplayer, and, being an election junky, I’ve watched the lot. (You can find it too if you go to Iplayer and search for ‘Election 97’)

To save you scrolling through the entire thing, you can see that Portillo Moment here. (Or it’s at 5’07 on the timeline if you go to Iplayer itself.)

But watching the rest of the coverage, three things struck me forcefully that might prove useful tips for anybody who’s anxious about appearing in the media, or addressing a large audience in a crowded venue.


1. If you’re on the ropes, keep your answers short.

Several hours before his defeat, Michael Portillo was at the BBC’s Television Centre. It was 10.20pm — far too early for any actual results, but a sacrificial lamb was required to respond to the ominous Exit Poll, and Mr Portillo had stepped up. Jeremy Paxman was asking the questions. Here’s the first minute of the exchange.

PAXMAN: “Are you going to miss the Ministerial Limo?”

PORTILLO: “As Brain Mawhinny said, I think we will wait for the real results”.

PAXMAN: “But on the basis of these Exit Polls, you aren’t in with a prayer, you’re going down to the worst defeat in 150 years …”

PORTILLO: “I still think it’s reasonable that we should wait for the real results, rather than speculate on the theory. We’re going to have a theory, and a fact tonight. So why don’t we wait for the fact.”

PAXMAN: “What do you think was the biggest mistake in the campaign?”

PORTILLO: “I think the biggest mistake was Tony Blair telling fibs about Pensions.”

PAXMAN: “And what was your own biggest mistake in the Party?”

PORTILLO: “I think that the thing the Party needs to reflect upon, is that it has done itself no good by showing its divisions. I think that’s what we need to reflect upon.”

Do you notice, as I did, how short Mr Portillo’s answers are? The first is four seconds. The next is ten. The third is five seconds. And the fourth comes in at just over eight.

Too many interviewees, when on the defensive, resort to ‘talking the clock down’ — reaching for a stock set of facts and statements, quite possibly repeated several times already, blending into one long ramble. The guaranteed result is that the audience will be irritated, and the interviewer will have plenty of time to compose a powerful follow up question. Both Rishi Sunak and Keir Starmer have demonstrated this in recent weeks with wearying regularity.

But by keeping his answers so short, Portillo ensures that the journalist is having to do a lot of quick thinking, too.
With someone as skilled as Jeremy Paxman, it’s a fair contest. But if you are being interviewed by someone less experienced — who may themselves be nervous — deploying the short answer technique could mean the interviewer runs out of ideas before you’ve had to resort to a rehearsed and inauthentic ramble.

Trust me, I have been that reporter — looking and sounding confident, perhaps, but in the early days, dreading the short answer that would test me to the full.


2. If you’re addressing your tribe, look at them. All of them.

Three hours later, Tony Blair had won his Sedgefield Seat, and was aware that a landslide awaited him in Downing Street. You may love him or loathe him for what came to pass over the next ten years, but few would deny his skill at communicating with an audience.

Watching his acceptance speech in County Durham before flying down to London for the rally at the Festival Hall, I was struck by a technique he used on stage that can be so powerful, but so often overlooked by a nervous speaker.
The Audience Scan.

You can see it here.

Tony Blair doesn’t simply glance around a bit. As he thanks his supporters, and outlines his plans, he looks left, he looks right, he tilts his head forward. He doesn’t simply move his eyes, he moves his head and neck.

He is a leader of his tribe, determined to make as many people in the room as possible feel that he’s looked them in the eye.

If you’re addressing your tribe, even if relying on a script or notes, be confident enough with your material to look up regularly. And once you’ve looked up, look around. Look all around. Exaggerate it a bit. Your audience will notice the eye contact far more than what’s coming out of your mouth.


3. However bad things are turning out, empathy is good

Not only did Michael Portillo have to stand on stage at the nation watched aghast. He then had to listen to the man who had humiliated him deliver his victory speech — and respond.
But he does this with empathy and grace.

He says that he thinks Stephen Twigg will be a very good MP, and that he wishes him well. He goes on to wish the new government well. He describes the unfolding drama as “a truly terrible night for the Conservatives”. And he ends with a line of black humour: “One thing I will not miss … will be answering the questions about the leadership!”

Who knows what moments Election Night 2024 will deliver. I’ll be keeping an eye out for them on another all-nighter, and maybe composing a new blog post in my head as I go.

However you cast your vote, I hope you enjoy the broadcast spectacle that lies ahead — and that it perhaps helps you when you face a big broadcast moment of your own.

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