Alex Salmond doesn’t need a comfort blanket.

I have not previously featured Alex Salmond on this blog. So it seemed to me that if I was ever going to do it this week would seem pertinent timing. Lest the reader regards it as significant, let me lay out my own prejudices concerning this week’s Scottish Independence Referendum.

I have an affection for the country so sense a pang at its possible loss, while realizing this is is absurd – whatever happens it will still be there. I am a fervent localist so it is logical that I should feel a little excited at people wanting more control over their own destiny, while hoping for their sake that Scotland doesn’t turn into a British version of North Korea. Those details aside, I am disinterested. Like all other inhabitants of the British Isles, outside Scotland, I have no vote on the matter; so disinterest is my officially imposed designation. I have viewed aghast the contemptible spectacle of the prime minister and other party leaders pathetically trying to outbid each other with offers of constitutional goody-bags to shore up the ‘No’ campaign, without a shred of mandate so to do, and I have sighed at how unpleasant the campaign has become. There: that just about covers it.

What about Salmond as a speaker? I have never before watched him. I noticed how, when he resigned as SNP leader in 2000 and picked up the reins again in 2004, the party’s fortunes seemed to be directly linked to whether or not he was leading it, so it would appear that the man has something – if only plausibility. Let’s have a look at his party conference speech earlier this year.

Like far too many speakers he has a comfort blanket made of paper on that lectern. It is entirely unnecessary. I have carefully monitored the times his face goes down, and almost never was there so much as a syllable that he could not have confidently uttered without the assistance of paper. Every time his face goes down he breaks eye-contact with his audience, and he does it about ten times a minute. In communication terms this is an expensive comfort blanket.

That aside, he is a very good communicator. The audience is his from the moment he starts. That is not too surprising: party leaders’ speeches seldom get greeted with stony faces and crossed arms, but this is not simply mindless fawning. Those people are really listening, and they are right to do so. It is pretty well crafted stuff.

Whoever wrote the speech loves anaphora. Two that I noted almost at random occurred at 14:25 and 29:22, and he also ends with an anaphoric tricolon. But details like that add cosmetic enhancement; they don’t make or break speeches.

The make/break ingredients are always the message and how it is structured. This speech is fairly good, though if he had dared spurn the paper (like all my trainees) he would have forced himself to structure it even more simply. KISS – Keep It Simple, Stupid! Then he would have eliminated those few moments when the pace sagged. He would have been able to eyeball his audience throughout (it’s only half-an-hour), and turn the speech from very good to outstanding.

The speech failed my memorability test, but you will have to read my book to know what that is. Salmond would benefit from reading my book. Then he might take his thumb out of his mouth, throw away his comfort blanket and become a great speaker.

Ian Paisley with peace in his pockets

On 12 September – yesterday – the world bid its last goodbye to The Reverend and the Right Honourable The Lord Bannside PC, better known to the world as Ian Paisley

If you are looking for an Ian Paisley speech you instinctively reach for ear-plugs, because for years every time he was seen on television speaking to the public we saw something like this …

Yet every obituary in the broadcast media has had people stressing how in private he was a very quiet man. Indeed many years ago, at the height of the Northern Ireland troubles, I saw a TV documentary that strongly made that very point. Therefore I have chosen to reflect on the man with this, his House of Commons farewell speech. It was on 22 March, 2010, while the House of Commons was debating the transfer of policing and justice powers to North Ireland.

 

He is speaking with his hands in his pockets. From my earliest days training people in speaking I often persuaded men that speaking with your hands in your pockets can convey a desirable image of confidence, authority and sincerity, and also underlines that you are speaking without notes. (It doesn’t really work for women, not least because they seldom have pockets.)

Paisley doesn’t need the help of paper to drop a nice little anadiplosis into the first ten seconds; but it isn’t smart-alec figures of speech that mark this delivery. We have already started reading obituaries and tributes to the way he went from tub-thumping, mob-inciting ranting to emollient peacemaking, working with his enemies to bring and keep peace in North Ireland. This is my way of highlighting the emollience.

I can’t resist drawing attention to what he says at 1:27. Standing, as I said, with his hands in his pockets, he urges those with opposing views to keep their hands in their pockets. I like the reflected imagery.

It’s not in itself a brilliant speech. It goes on a little longer than it should: there were several places that he could well have stopped earlier. But it represents far more than it says, and I like to remember him this way.

R.I.P.

Lord Deben insults the intelligence of his audience.

The Institute of International and European Affairs in Dublin hosted a keynote speech in July 2014 by Lord Deben.  The IIEA’s own website tells us that his theme was ‘Energy and Climate Change’.

Having been in his audience on one occasion I can personally vouch that Deben is a skilled speaker. Let’s see how well he does on this occasion.

What sort of opening is this? It can most charitably be described as a stumbling-in. Within a very few seconds I have the impression that, his knowing his own adept capacity for motor-mouthing off the top of his head, he has barely given this speech any thought at all. He is going to have to do better than this with an audience of people who are not only intelligent but too busy to put up with being fed inconsequential burble for the next half-hour. I reckon he has worked out the same thing from the faces in front of him.  Why else would he direct so much of this early guff at the conference chairman beside him? Could it be that this is the nearest he can find to a comfort zone? I hope not, because the chairman doesn’t look overly impressed either.

Deben lards the burble with some rather lame flannel in an attempt to ingratiate himself, but I don’t think it’s working. We can see only the backs of the heads in the audience front row, but I find the angles of some of those heads a little ominous. The chairman is shooting some nervous glances at the front row also.

Five minutes in, and my hands are over my face. He has said nothing that could not have been covered in fifteen seconds. This is pitiful!

He then tells us that the UK Climate Change Committee, which he chairs, is independent. He proceeds patronizingly to explain and explain and explain, with helpful gestures, what independence means. If the members of this audience have IQs above room temperature, and I have every reason to suppose that they do, they already know better than he does what independence means. He seems to have a very strange idea of it, because he tells us he is so independent that he owed his appointment to ministerial patronage.

Next he lists (or rather doesn’t) the committee’s personnel. Deben surely knows the basic rule that proper nouns of all descriptions are hooks that retain the audience’s attention, yet where are the names of his committee members? From 8:16 till 8:45 he wriggles and squirms while trying to remember one of their names. He gives us several details about the gentleman in question, almost down to his inside leg measurement, but no name. An achingly long pause, punctuated by ‘ums’, ‘ers’ and screwed-up eyes staring into the middle distance tell us very eloquently that he has forgotten the name. He attempts to camouflage this appalling faux pas by then describing, but not naming, other committee members as if this was his intention all along. It doesn’t wash!  He has goofed, big time. There are numerous ways to remember such data, including writing them down for God’s sake, but he’s too bloody idle to do any of them.

That I fear is the pattern for the entire speech. He waffles around for half-an-hour with all sorts of ill-considered, misguided and badly expressed nonsense that says nothing and gets no one anywhere. The nearest he comes to any sort of message arrives with his peroration. At around the 26 minute mark he begins to make it very clear what anyone who has peered more than an inch below the surface of the matter already knew, namely that the climate change movement is not about science but politics. It is a device to edge us towards world government. The creed (the best word for it) is political and imperialist and very, very dangerous.

As for the quality of this as a piece of speech-making, what can I say? I see bad speeches by people who haven’t learned how, by people who have all manner of difficulties and problems, but this man can speak. As a result, this disgusts me.  He has insulted his audience. He should be thoroughly ashamed of himself.

Julian Assange is there – at the moment.

When a few days ago I posted a critique of a Douglas Murray speech at a debate, I rather committed myself to airing a speech that his opponent had made. As rumours are currently circulating that Julian Assange is proposing shortly to leave the Ecuadorian Embassy in London I thought I  would have a look at the speech, the notorious one that he delivered from an embassy window two years ago in August 2012.

I am reluctant to wade into the argument concerning the rights and wrongs of Wikileaks, its activities and existence, because I am terribly torn.  On the one hand I am fiercely in favour of free-speech, even (perhaps especially) when that speech is unpalatable; and on the other I recognize the points made so eloquently by Douglas Murray in that speech I covered a few days ago. One day I might sit myself down in a darkened room and try to think the thing through, but today I think I shall keep my rhetor hat on.

This speech is famous for that clever opening sentence. Rightly so.

The quality of the composition is impressive. I’d prefer him not to have written it, but shot it from the hip, because I know it would have gained added power; but I also know that he would point to the lists of names of people and countries whose support he needed to acknowledge. There are ways of addressing that problem.

Concerning what Assange describes, beginning at 0:35, I have none of the ambivalence described earlier. If there was an attempt by British authorities to invade the embassy, then shame on them. If he is making it up, then shame on him.

At 0:55 he begins a neat anadiplosis (“the world was watching”) which morphs into a pretty epistrophe.

I get a little uneasy at his sanctimonious upholding of the importance of the rule of law when this whole business has come about because of his breaking of laws. There are ways, without sanctimony, that he could thank those who assisted him.

Beginning at 3:00 he thanks a list of South American countries which he claims to have supported his asylum. It is long lists like this that you might claim require the use of paper. After all, if he hadn’t written down all these countries’ names he might have mentioned Argentina twice…

He turns his thanks to the people of the countries whose governments he claims to have persecuted him. Essentially he is playing to the crowd, That’s fair enough: the crowd is definitely his market. Nevertheless I sense an urge creeping up on me to doff my rhetor hat for a moment.

This audience, this crowd of fearless front-line commandos in the battle for free speech, I wonder whether they would be quite so accommodating if he were – say – upholding fracking as the answer to the world’s energy problems. Or might they be howling for him to be silenced?

Just a thought.

Douglas Murray vs. Julian Assange

On 9 April 2011 in Kensington Town Hall in London there was held a debate sponsored by the New Statesman. The motion was  “This house believes whistle-blowers make the world a safer place.” There were three speakers on each side of the argument, though in this post we shall be hearing from just two of them, one because it was his turn to speak and the other because he interrupted all the time. The speaker has appeared before on this blog. I shall try to seek out some interesting material from the intrrupter. If you are wondering why I have chosen now to look at some speaking from three and a half years ago you have not been following the news very closely.

Something that I try to remember to remind both trainees and myself when I am training is that they and I can watch their performances played back from video, and can express all the opinions we like, but ultimately the only judgement that matters is that of the audience. A speech is a product, an audience the market. The market is never wrong. It can be irrational, idiotic, imbecilic, but it can’t be wrong.

Murray begins with some relatively inconsequential backchat; but within 40 seconds, riding on the back of  something an opponent had said, he is into serious stuff (albeit with a joke attached). Listen closely to the silence in the market. Except for laughter the audience is very quiet indeed. This is the ultimate compliment.

The silence is caused not just by the weight of the message, but by the way Murray delivers it. His style tends to be very quiet, and he silences his audience that way. He is an habitual and expert practitioner of the 2-inches-from-my-nose school. This technique chooses not to go out to its audience but to bring it closer (this is all metaphorical, you understand). If you speak very quietly. distinctly and quite slowly you can, by force of will, make the focal point of even a large hall to form just two inches from your nose. If you pull that off (the technique, not your nose) it’s a glorious feeling. I have often thought that whoever coined the cliche, “audience in the palm of my hand”, must have been a 2-inches merchant. A word of warning: don’t do it all the time. Vary your style and pitch. Murray does.

Is it a mistake, or is Murray deliberately provoking disruption when he launches a protracted anaphoric sequence? At around 3:30, with the words, “Are you sure you know what you’re doing when …” he kicks off a series of questions which might claim to be rhetorical, but which cause Assange to charge the microphone to supply answers. Is Murray then deliberately stoking the heat when he denies the interjection?  – “No, no, no, you’ll have your chance later.” The pent-up quarrel becomes really rather entertaining. Both of the other opposing speakers likewise leap to their feet and Murray refuses their interjections also.

My opinion is that he might not have foreseen quite how much this would all bait Assange, but was delighted to play him like a trout when he saw the development.

The debate chairman eventually tries to release some of the steam from Assange, and some elements in the audience, by over-ruling Murray and allowing the interjection. There follows an exchange, and even quite a long period of the two speaking simultaneously. There is one critical difference of demeanour between them.  Murray is smiling: he is enjoying himself.

He stops smiling when again the floor is his alone. The subject matter is serious and he is not averse to introducing some drama to close. Characteristically his peroration owes its drama to quiet intensity rather than thunderous auxesis. He pairs his finish with his opening. He closes his circle. Full marks.

Rose Goslinga triumphs

If you were a very assiduous follower of this blog, and also equipped with a good memory, you might recall this posting from the end of May 2013. Rose Goslinga had delivered a Pop Tech talk about her relatively new business, insuring African farmers against drought. The link will enable you to go back and look at that posting if you wish, but essentially I restricted myself to expressing concern over fussy, distracting visuals, and her own inner confidence that I felt was a little fragile.

In June of this year, in Berlin, she delivered a TED talk.

Inevitably I find myself looking for the vulnerability I spotted previously; and I delight in the dazzling smile with which at the very beginning she bathes the audience. Is it a completely confident smile?

Even before the video started I could answer that. Like every other speaker in history she is experiencing a hump, so there absolutely has to be an element of artifice in that smile. I congratulate her on how well she does it.

Her opening is driven by slides with almost no words on them, so her voice and the pictures complement each other to set the scene and create her required decorum. It lasts a smidgen more than 90 seconds, so her hump will now be receding fast. She swings into ethos, with again wordless slides, and we are given a clear picture of the background to her business. This lasts another minute, so by the time she gets to the nitty-gritty her hump is history and her voice is good and strong.  Excellent construction.

When she is explaining the way her business works, she is much more sparing with her slides, and still they are almost completely wordless. Her visuals never compete with her: that is the key.

I shall not spoil her story by trying to precis it. It’s a good story and she tells it very well. It reaches its punchline with a visual that begins at 8:36 and progresses. That visual, as part of the overall narrative, is simply brilliant. This hardened old cynic actually got the warm fuzzies from it, and it triggered a spontaneous round of applause from the audience.

Her closing is paired with her opening: she closes the circle.

Rose Goslinga is not a trainee of mine, though our having shared acquaintances it is not impossible that she has read my book. If she were my trainee I would be proud as hell.

Jonathan Portes is not optimal

On 20 November 2013 economist Jonathan Portes delivered a talk at the Institute for International and European Affairs entitled Crisis and recovery in Europe: what have we learnt?

In addition to my evaluating the quality of the speaking, I was eager to hear what he had to say. After all, probably the most important thing for him to have learnt is what caused the crisis in the first place, particularly when as one of the chief holders of Britain’s economic reins at the time Portes could justifiably be held to have been one of the prime architects of said crisis.

I am slightly allergic to the starting of sentences, let alone whole speeches, with “So…” but that’s probably my age. I am trusting the quality will pick up. It doesn’t. This must count as one of the handful of dreariest openings I have ever had the misfortune to hear

The only thing that can be said in its favour is that Portes does eventually lay out his stall by giving us a pair of little triads by way of a contents page for his speech – “diagnosis, prescription, prognosis: how did we get into this mess, what have we been doing since we got into this mess, where do we go from here?”. That could have been inspired by my book, and was looking as if something constructive was coming.

After a sustained period of verbal wandering around aimlessly he declares that “fiscal policy was not the cause”. Got that? Not his fault. He admits that fiscal policy was “not optimal”. (This is bureaucratese for “piss-poor”.) There remains an obvious and so far unanswered question, namely what then was the cause? He addresses this, and the next minute or so could have come from a Monty Python Spoof as he “ums”, “errs”, and generally meanders, restarts several sentences, and finally pins it on the US, the Chinese, and “structural imbalances”. I half expected him to blame it all on global warming or the tooth-fairy.

As convincing speaking goes, this is not optimal.

He is in general shooting from the hip. His frequent glances down at the lectern are really so as not to get caught by all the unconvinced eyes that I feel sure are in the room. The curious thing is that there comes a time in the speech when I want him to look more at the lectern.

At 15:40 he puts up a slide with a graph on it, and for quite a while he speaks to the image on the wall. Had he been speaking through his left ear or his left shoulder the microphone would have picked it up wonderfully: in the event, the sound is not optimal. I reckon it likely that he has that graph and later ones in hard-copy on the lectern, in which case he merely needs to glance over his shoulder to acknowledge the image on the wall but otherwise he can keep his face to the audience, his sound to the microphone and look at the graphs in front of him. Just after the 31-minute mark when he turns over his paper he shows me I was right.

This speech would cure an insomniac.

Readers of this blog, in which I rail so often at those who bury themselves in scripts, might be tempted to conclude that all they have to do is find a way to do without paper and everything will be tickety-boo. I’m sorry but there’s a little more to it than that. You need to structure your material in such a way as to make it easy for you to drive your message. Before that you need a message. Before that you need to understand your subject. Albert Einstein is quoted as follows -

If you can’t explain it to a six year old, you don’t understand it yourself.

Considered on that basis, this speech shows that Portes’ understanding of economics is … not optimal.