Whatever you think of Margaret Thatcher’s politics, there’s no question about her seismic influence on Britain’s political and economic landscape.
Not only did she become the longest-serving British prime minister of the 20th century, but also the first ever woman to hold that office. The Iron Lady was known for her uncompromising politics, unwavering conviction and strong leadership style. She was an incredible orator with tremendous energy and an uncanny ability to wipe the floor with her opponents.
But she didn’t always have this influence.
When Thatcher first joined the Conservative Party, her public image left much to be desired. Her voice lacked authority, with high tones as sharp as they were irritating. Commentators observed that she spoke too fast and Television critic Clive James writing in The Observer compared her voice to “a cat sliding down a blackboard”. Her wardrobe didn’t help either. Plain and stuffy, her dress failed to distinguish her from the rest. Few took her initial foray into politics seriously.
But for what Thatcher lacked in credibility and style, she more than made up for with determination. She never complained about being a woman in “a man’s world” and instead set herself the task of taking all the men on. She also realised she had to tailor her public image to suit the media age.
Enter Gorden Reece, a flamboyant former television producer who became one of Thatcher’s closest advisors on image and reputation. Having studied audiences’ reactions to her television performances, Reece realised she was being perceived as “uncaring” and cold. It was a combination of her overly set hair, traditional clothing and that high pitch voice.
Reece advised Thatcher to soften her hairstyle and refine her wardrobe. Out went the fussy bows and over-sized jewellery; in came the simpler, more elegant outfits. He also helped her to relax and deepen the tone of her voice so that she became far easier to listen to. A National Theatre coach was brought in to help her speak at a slower pace and with greater deliberation so that she brought a more intimate air to her delivery.
Such mastery of public speaking is paramount in our combative and fast-moving media age where journalists are often more interested in sensation over truth. You need absolute poise to keep the upper hand, must never take the bait and have total conviction in your well-thought-out delivery. Even just one small error in language choice can spell career carnage.
Reece knew the importance of calm eloquence and encouraged Thatcher to always pause before answering questions, particularly from combative interviewers. She gave herself the time to consolidate her thoughts before she spoke which ensured her message took on it’s necessary weight. This not only raised her status but kept her in full command of every interview without sounding strident or defensive.
Reece went further still and sought private counsel with the celebrated actor Laurence Olivier, who taught Thatcher the importance of telling a gripping story. Rather than mindlessly parrot a script, she practised the art of bringing her words to exciting life by making her speech more human and evocative. It was Olivier who helped Thatcher build a dignified stage presence so that no matter the pressure, she kept her listeners enthralled.
The chief aim of Thatcher’s intensive training was to make her more accessible – and perhaps even likable – to newspapers and television, and ultimately to the voters. In fact, winning over the working classes was key to her success. However, the working class viewed Thatcher as part of the elite, particularly as she had a wealthy businessman for a husband. Thatcher worked hard to water down this attitude by constantly sharing her story of humble beginnings as the ‘daughter of a grocery store owner’. These relatable stories were circulated extensively in the press and ultimately won her the working-class vote.
But in the end, what made Mrs Thatcher truly powerful was her unshakable conviction in her policies. Whenever she slipped into rehearsed sounding speech, Reece would always remind her to simply be herself; the person inside who never doubted her ideas and who rose like a phoenix to every challenge. This was who Thatcher really was, and Reece understood the importance of playing to this strength.
Love her or hate her, the makeover of the Grantham grocer’s daughter into one of the most influential politicians of the modern era is nothing short of a miracle. Mrs Thatcher’s transformation was arguably the first of what would become the common practice of tailoring a politician’s image to fit the media age. Many have tried to follow suit, but none have made as remarkable an impact as our first ever woman Prime Minister.
There’s a bit of Thatcher in us all. With some sophisticated presentation skills and intelligent image crafting, coupled with grit and determination, we can each of us achieve anything we set our minds to.