You can learn a lot by studying a great speaker at the top of their game.

This week I had the privilege of spending nearly an hour in the presence of one – the former UK Prime Minister, Gordon Brown.

You may be surprised by that description.

When he occupied the great offices of state (Chancellor of the Exchequer 1997-2007, Prime Minister 2007-2010) he wasn’t highly regarded as a communicator.

But this week he showed that in front of a live audience shy, awkward Gordon, blind in one eye and still with a trace of that funny mouth tic, is pretty damned good at it.

My observations of Gordon Brown, with lessons for other politicians and any CEO who wants to be taken seriously, are as follows.

1. Know your audience.

Imagine they’ve all got “what’s in it for me?” tattooed across their foreheads. Brown knew. It was a university crowd, so he could throw in some economics. A bit too much for my liking, actually, but I’m slightly obsessive about connecting with non-specialist audiences. This audience loved what he said. Previous Labour leaders have not been so good at this. I once interviewed Michael Foot, who treated every audience, including the public, like a university audience. Result? His message went over the heads of millions. He lost.

2. Know your stuff.

I don’t mean your field of expertise. We know you’re an expert in that. But your mastery of your presentation is a metaphor for your mastery of your job or your subject, and the journey on which you as a leader are taking us. Never hesitate, never stumble, never ramble. So practise, practise, practise. Brown’s was a pro job. Great content, well polished, structured, signposted, flowing effortlessly and logically from start to finish.

3. Know your persona.

Be authentic, they say. I absolutely agree. But there’s also the question of your ‘persona’ – the way people see your character.  If you’re emotionally intelligent you’ll have some idea. If you’re famous, the media will tell you. Over time, they will create a crude and exaggerated version of you, like a political cartoon.  This gives you a choice – play along or set out to contradict it. Gordon Brown’s persona in government was serious, staid, dull but dependable. And it suited him. That’s how you want the person in charge of the economy to be. But now, he’s away from all that. And he showed that he can be funny, irreverent and entertaining. Which leads nicely into:

4. Tell stories.

Humans hate facts, love stories. Tell us an anecdote and we’re hooked. Every factual or moral point in your speech should be backed up by an appropriate story. Use humour where appropriate. Include some self-deprecating yarns about yourself. Use the formula ‘Rhetorical Question’ > ‘Anecdote’ > ‘Lesson’. Brown did that, repeatedly and successfully.  He’s a great storyteller. Who knew?

5. Give light and shade.

Audiences can’t take unrelieved seriousness. To absorb information we need variety. So change the mood in different parts of your speech. Alternate between serious, funny, happy, poignant, loud, quiet, passionate, hushed and reverential. Gordon Brown set up an enjoyably light-hearted mood but could have varied it more than he did.

6. Watch the speed.

I was surprised to see that Gordon Brown delivered the first 15-20 minutes of his talk at breakneck speed. Then he slowed down and we all relaxed. You speed up when you’re nervous. And a nervous speaker means a nervous audience. Have a calming routine, a ritual that you always perform before you speak. For example, stretch every part of your body. Do a mouth exercise like ‘EEEEEE’ ‘OOOO’ ‘AAAA’. Drink water. Power pose. Or whatever works for you.

7. Don’t pace.

Gordon is a pacer. He strides up and down constantly. It’s not a good habit as it, like speeding, makes an audience nervous. (Although it works when Michael McIntyre does it…) Also, the audience transfer their attention from the speaking to the pacing, so you’re detracting from the power of your message. Much better to speak decisively from one spot, then before you introduce a new key point, move decisively to a new location. It gives the audience something new to look at.

8. Be physical.

Good hand and arm gestures add enormously to the power of your message, but don’t overdo it and don’t obsess about it. Leaders in particular should beware the tendency to do karate chops and finger-pointing, both of which can come across as aggressive. Gordon Brown got a bit choppy in places but was mostly OK.

9. Pause instead of umming.

We’re all umming birds to some extent. We can’t think of the next word or thought, so we say um, er, or some variation of that to save our speaking space until we can. Next time this happens to you, just pause for an um’s worth of time instead. Pauses are dramatic. They add to the impact of the words immediately before and after. And much less irritating than errrrmmmm. Gordon did OK on the um front.

10. Call to action

Basic point – why are you telling us this stuff? Too many speeches just impart random information that could just as easily be in a written document. But if you’re a leader, you’ll want to lead us somewhere. When planning your speech, think how you want the audience to think or act differently as a result of listening to you. It was easy for Gordon Brown – he wanted us to buy his book ‘My Life, Our Times’, all proceeds of which go to charity.

I am a speaker coach and speechwriter based in Bristol UK and working internationally. For an informal chat on any aspect of speaking, presentation or handling the media, email