Gareth Southgate – the great communicator

Gareth Southgate.  If you’re looking for insights into the origins of the waistcoat, or the development of the 3-5-2 I’m afraid we can’t oblige.  Because we want to focus on his outstanding communication skills.

Six weeks ago, you might have been surprised to read that an English football manager embodied many of the skills we encourage professionally.  Big Sam didn’t set the highest benchmark.  But even the most dispassionate observer of Southgate at his news conferences and interviews during the World Cup can’t help but have been impressed.  Why?

Modesty

So many public speakers – particularly in the world of sport – seem able to speak only about themselves.  In enormous detail.  Ask a professional golfer about his game and you will receive an endless stream of self-analysis – often technical.  Gareth Southgate understands that it’s not about him.  He is just a conduit through which we can understand and support his team.  As a result, he speaks about them with respect and admiration.  This means that when he does gives insights into his own life (disappearing into the Yorkshire moors after the tournament, or the thrill of winning a penalty shootout as manager), we want to listen.

Self-deprecation

Having missed the penalty that previously defined him in 1996, Southgate starred in a pizza ad with a paper bag over his face.  Some criticised him, others saw a man clearly able to laugh at himself.  In recent weeks he has used self-deprecating humour to win over the press and a multitude of fans.  Take the game against Belgium where he was asked about the team deliberately seeking yellow cards to ensure that they finished behind Belgium in the group.  He answered by suggesting “if I go and headbutt Roberto (Martinez) in the last five minutes then you’ll know we’re taking a different approach to getting through!”  Tension diffused.  Awkward answer avoided.

Pausing

Watch almost any clip of Gareth Southgate answering a question and you’ll have to wait a moment for an answer.  You might notice a slight frown.  He’s thinking.  It might sound obvious, but listen to so many other high profile people speaking under pressure and they rush straight in.  Whether you are sitting in an interview or standing up to present, that pause allows you to gather your thoughts, put your head before your heart, and avoid silly mistakes.

True to himself

Southgate is a good guy.  But so are many public figures.  Where he’s different is he never tries to be something he’s not.  There’s no bravado.  No desperate (and over-planned) attempts to place pre-written jokes as is now the norm at Prime Minister’s Question Time. No hype.  I read his joint-autobiography many years ago (Woody and Nord – worth a look!) and was delighted to see such a sensible, thoughtful ex-footballer writing candidly and sensibly.  He may now be England manager but he’s still candid, sensible and thoughtful.  From a communications perspective he is constantly living up to his billing as someone speaking at the top of their own game.

Body Language

Appropriate.  There are no histrionics (as you would expect), but nor does he lack performance energy.  Southgate looks his audience in the eye.  He uses his arms to emphasise key points.  His smile may never launch a thousand ships, but it suggests that he is enjoying life and not suffocated by pressure.  It is incredible how often the most brilliant people hide behind a stern face when public speaking.  Not Gareth.

Sense of perspective

It’s rare that (tragedy on or off the pitch notwithstanding) a football manager is accused of looking at the bigger picture.  By highlighting the contrast between England’s footballers and the political mess back at home, highlighting the ambassadorial role of his players and constantly referencing the supporters and the efforts they made, Southgate demonstrated that although results matter, there is more to life.

Room for Improvement

Gareth Southgate is an ‘ermmmmer’.  This is a trap into which so many of us fall – be it on the phone, chatting face-to-face or presenting in public.  ‘Erming’ becomes habitual.  And it is contagious – particularly in the football world.  Listen to Harry Kane who links almost every sentence with a good couple of seconds of white noise.  ‘Erming’ can easily be replaced.  By silence.  We have clients who have agreed to put 50p in a charity box every tie they hear themselves ‘erm’.  Within three days they are cured.  If Gareth could pause for thought while remaining silent, there wouldn’t be much left to work on.