Michael Ball: an actor speaks

The Oxford Union not only hosts debates but invites celebrities of all descriptions to come and speak.  Earlier this year Michael Ball was their guest.

I have yet to meet an actor that didn’t regard him or herself as a consummate public speaker and, truth to tell, good actors can deliver anything you give them; but a speech involves more than skilled delivery. It has to be created first, and that is where actors usually fall down. Michael Ball is a good actor: let us see how he fared here.

He is reading.

You don’t even have to watch to know. Look away and listen. You can hear the words go in through his eyes and out through his mouth, being processed en route for the purpose of performance but not being thought about. The thinking process took place when the words were written: it is not happening now. If you doubt me, listen at 1:33 when he misreads and – before he corrects himself – exactly reverses the meaning of a sentence. If he had been thinking about what he was saying he could not have made that mistake. It’s a good script, some of it is funny, but even when he is being serious and apparently speaking from the heart, he is actually speaking only from the script.

The script is a screen between him and his audience. His performance skill is considerable, but it doesn’t completely penetrate that screen.

Watch this and understand why my trainees all speak without notes. They don’t have to be as good as this at performing: they just need to be themselves.

Ball is nervous, and his nerves continue much longer than they need – again because he is using a script. That script/screen being in the way means he is never completely speaking with his audience, never completely engaging with them. It’s a performance, albeit a skillful one; but even a professional communicator will relax more quickly and thoroughly once he engages with his audience.

And there’s something else.

In Beyond the Fringe there was a legendary piano sketch by Dudley Moore in which he played a parody of a Beethoven Sonata. Apart from the comedy brilliance of his applying Beethovenesque variations to the theme of Colonel Bogey, there is the added joke that he cannot find an ending. For a minute and a half he goes round and round trying to get out of this thing. Michael Ball’s speech reminded me of that. In increasing despair I lost count of the number of times he could and should have just STOPPED.

For about five minutes he goes in circles past obvious exit doors but doggedly continuing to speak. It’s a classic error, and is just another reminder that with public speaking being good at delivering material is simply not enough.

Anthony Watts – a tale of two paces.

On 12 June, 2015, at the Tenth International Conference on Climate Change in Washington D.C. the Award for Excellence in Climate Science Communication was presented to Anthony Watts.

I need tell you nothing more about this because the award presentation was eloquently preceded by a speech from Tom Harris, Heartland Institute’s Executive Director, International Climate Science Coalition.

Harris has a very relaxed, user-friendly style of speaking. Yes he uses a script, but he piles bags of his own personality into the delivery. If he’d been a trainee of mine he wouldn’t need the script, and he wouldn’t – standing at the lectern – have joined in the applause for Watts. As I’ve said before in this blog that’s one of those rare things that feels right and looks wrong, and the microphone makes it sound wrong also. I’m being picky because this is a well conceived, warm and generous tribute to Watts.

Watts comes to the stage at the 7-minute mark and collects his award. He then gives us several minutes of thanks and tributes. Aside from his also applauding from the lectern, if you have to do an extended thankfest (and sometimes you do) this is the way to do it. There’s no shallow, Oscar-style stuff, thanking the family, the dog, and the teddy bear, these are all professional peer-to-peer tributes. Only the names are on his paper. The actual tributes are shot from the hip, with the sincerity that that implies.

At 11:10 he announces a new project. For a reason that will shortly become clear I want you to note the excellently measured pace with which he shoots this section from the hip.

At this conference he also delivered a talk.

He begins by announcing that there is a shortage of time, and then sets off like a rocket. Allow me to quote myself from a recent blog article

Speaking too quickly to save time is essentially futile. Let us look at the mechanics of it. The actual words are not articulated significantly faster: the speed is in the closing of the gaps between words, in particular the natural pauses between phrases and sentences. I reckon everyone who has ever edited speech-audio has tried to save time by closing these gaps, and we’ve all done it only once because we’ve learnt the painful lesson. It doesn’t work! It’s a mug’s game: you slave for hours trimming these things, turn around and find that you’ve saved just a few lousy seconds.

Never speak too fast in an attempt to save time: take out a sentence or two instead. Otherwise your words and sentences can tumble over each other faster than the listener can absorb them.

To save time Watts should have removed something. That would have been a hellishly difficult thing to do because this stuff is so important; but the importance of the information is why he should have trimmed something out. He is addressing an expert audience, so they’ll follow it because they probably already know it; but most of the value of this talk is in educating the world via publishing the video on line. The speed of his talking will turn people away, and squander a valuable opportunity to educate more of the world.

Anthony Watts at the beginning of this posting received an award for communication. Quite right: his online contribution is matchless. In accepting the award he showed how well he can communicate with a live audience. And now he clearly shows how much his communication skill can be damaged by the apparently small mistake of having too much to say in too little time.

An important lesson for us all.

Jeremy Corbyn – refreshing sincerity

Most of my readers are not in the UK, so perhaps this posting requires some background information.

The UK media are currently working themselves into a lather concerning the candidates for election to be the next leader of the Labour Party. This position will carry with it the title of Leader of The Opposition. The erstwhile incumbent, Ed Miliband, resigned after Labour was (unexpectedly to the pollsters) thrashed by the Conservative Party at the General Election in May. The Labour leadership election is not till 10 September, but what is exercising the chatterati now is that the pollsters – yes, the same ones that had the result of the General Election spattering egg all over their faces – have a firebrand left-winger, Jeremy Corbyn MP, in the lead. (If you are a regular reader of this blog, and that name seems faintly familiar, it could be because we fairly recently critiqued a speech by his brother Piers.)

The received psephological wisdom seems to be that the only way to win an election these days is to pepper your pre-poll public pronouncements with all manner of declarations that place you in the political centre-ground. Once elected you are free to junk all those promises and no one really minds any more because everyone has come to expect it. In short, all the politicians representing their countries in international corridors of power, have therefore – by definition – to be duplicitous little shits. That’s the received wisdom; and if you look around the world stage you have to admit that … well anyway that’s the received wisdom.

Jeremy Corbyn makes absolutely no attempt to occupy the centre ground or pretend that he is anything other than an extreme left-wing firebrand, and therefore – so the ‘experts’ have it – he is unelectable.

In November 2013 Corbyn spoke at a debate in the Oxford Union. This blog has previously covered a speech by Daniel Hannan at the same debate. The motion was This House Believes Socialism Will Not Work. Corbyn spoke in opposition.

Corbyn is a very good speaker indeed.

It’s not just the fluent, paperless confidence that makes him so good; it’s also the quality of transparent sincerity. I work very hard to get my trainees to convey those same qualities and this speech shows why. You can’t help believing that he means what he says.

He doesn’t have much chance to get into his own flow because people keep interrupting him with interjections, heckling and points of order, and in fact this causes him to over-run his time and be bombarded by the time bell. But he still manages to promote his arguments, and he combats the time-bell with the words, “I’ll conclude with this thought”.

I happen to think his opinion is profoundly misguided. I don’t want to take time here to make the distinction between corporatism and free-market capitalism, but he seems not to recognize the difference. I do not believe in equality for the same reason that I do not believe in Santa Claus. Neither exists; and trying to force equality is a doomed mistake, as Milton Friedman said –

“A society that puts equality before freedom will get neither. A society that puts freedom before equality will get a high degree of both.”

Socialism operates through coercion instead of freedom, and the experience of the consistent failure of all the worldwide socialist experiments, up to and including North Korea, show that the movement thrives on stated intent rather than being able to cite any results. I marvel that any socialist any longer genuinely believes that the stated intent has any hope of materializing. It is almost as if freedom is suppressed for its own sake – like in North Korea.

Nevertheless Corbyn manifestly believes in it, and we can listen and know that he means what he says. That is a refreshing quality these days for a politician aiming for the top of his tree. I would loathe to live in a country governed by a party led by him, but that ain’t going to happen at least for a few years.

Bronwyn Oatley: a star speaker in the making

A reader of this blog referred me to the 2013 student commencement speech at Middlebury College, Vermont.

In the first minute I was struck by the quality of the speaking which is good enough for me to get really picky; but I could not at first discern what made this so particularly outstanding. I soon learnt.

The speaker is Bronwyn Oatley. She delivered this speech two years ago, so I am critiquing a time-capsule. I wonder how good she is now.

She has learnt her first few sentences. Memorized words sound slightly different from true shooting from the hip, but I am not complaining. It is a good plan as a hump-buster, though her hump lasts a little longer than the bit she has memorized. Again, this is not criticism: very few would spot the nervous symptoms, but I’m paid to do so.

She needs to learn to not pop the microphone. Almost every ‘p’ she utters causes the mic to pop, and it’s a distraction. Never point the mic at your mouth, or your mouth at the mic. Speak across it, not at it.

Her formal opening concerns a quote from G.B.Shaw. A smile forms on my face because many years ago I helped someone prepare a speech based on this very quote. It’s a beauty and I commend her choice.

This is good, clear, confident speaking, and beautifully tailored to her audience. There’s an early section full of in-jokes and reference to college events. These obviously mean nothing to me, and allow me to concentrate on the effect she is having on her audience. The staff members behind her, particularly the man on her left, are enjoying every nuance. The audience in front of her responds exactly as it should. Ultimately this, and not the pontification of someone like me, is the only test that matters.

At 4:27 she begins a good, long anaphora series – “I’m talking about the unreasonable…” This is well-constructed stuff, though she is not quite confident enough of her structure to dispose of her notes. The only fully justified time to look at paper has so far been when she overtly read a quote from the campus newspaper.  Other glances down at the lectern are essentially comfort stuff. In one hour I could have her throwing away paper for ever.

At 5:17 she does something brave. She gets personal and talks about herself. This is difficult to do at the best of times, but she makes it not the best of times by addressing the matter of her own sexuality. She recounts her journey of self-discovery and her coming out to her mother. Though she is talking about herself she arranges that Middlebury College be the hero of the story. The stability and support of the community is what saw her through the crisis.

If a pin dropped it would be deafening. Even when she momentarily tries to lighten the mood with a little personal humour the audience is so moved that silence prevails. The balance line between paying a sincere tribute and lapsing into mawkishness is very narrow, but she finds it. This section is quite remarkable.

She breaks the spell at 7:18. The man on her left smiles, and within seconds the hall is full of laughter and applause. She plays this audience like a violin.

At 9:30 she signals her closing by returning to that G.B.Shaw quotation. Every one of my trainees will testify how much I like it when speakers pair their openings and closings – the matter comes up at every course. It is elegant and professional. It closes the circle and cues the applause. Bronwyn closes beautifully… apart from the microphone popping.

Sadhguru Jaggi Vasudev returns

In April 2013 Emory University, in Atlanta Georgia, hosted a talk by the mystic, Sadhguru Jaggi Vasudev.

He has appeared four times previously on this blog, and the first of those remains my most viewed posting. Barely a day passes without there being several visitors to it. Are they coming to study his speaking skill or listen to his wisdom? I neither know nor care, because I have the same question with regard to myself. I luxuriate in how well he speaks, but mainly listen to what he says about life. He does not have all the answers. If he claimed that I would spurn him. What he has is guidance on how we should seek our own answers.

The reason I am featuring him again, apart from merely indulging myself, is because he displays some fundamental lessons for all speakers.

He likes to begin with that chanting. The one time on this blog that he didn’t was his least successful appearance on it. I am convinced it is a focus device, a form of yoga if you will. It lasts about a minute, so it will also double as a hump-buster. The rest of us would have difficulty in employing it, but we all use what we can to get on a roll.

He looks other-worldly, but doesn’t sound it. This is because he absolutely isn’t. His Isha Foundation is a hugely successful business, for which he makes no apology but instead uses its riches to do much valuable philanthropic work.

He doesn’t take himself seriously. His philosophy, yes, his work, yes, himself no. That is such an important lesson for life as well as for speaking. There’s some lovely, gentle self-mockery. The self-mockery extends to beyond himself. Listen to the way he speaks about India. His love for his country is obviously profound, but that doesn’t stop him ribbing it. All of that will charm any audience.

He has a habit of asking what appear to be rhetorical questions, and then asking for an answer. This keeps the audience slightly on the back foot, but also on its toes. If you are on your toes you pay attention. It’s clever.

He is wonderfully adept at classic rhetorical devices. There is a long and elaborate anaphora series “If you become pleasant …” beginning at 12:35. These things are not only really easy to deliver because of their logical progress, but they are just as easy for an audience to absorb. Win – win.

He needs no script: he needs no notes: he needs no slides. Many people think that this is a magical trick, but they are wrong. It is easy: you merely need to know how to do it. He has structured this whole hour-long talk in a way that has each section following logically from its predecessor. Also he knows his subject. You know your subject, so if you likewise structured your material you would not need script, notes or slides either.

But I think the single most important lesson that he provides for speakers comes from who he is and what he does. This man is supremely comfortable in his skin – do we have any doubt at all about that? His very stock-in-trade is that inner peace that I try to get my trainees to embrace. Thus he spares not a nano-thought to himself, but simply focuses on what this audience needs to hear and how best therefore to tell it to them.

That is the ideal mindset for any speaker. That is why he is so good. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to listen to him.

Melissa Menke heading for excellence

In June 2015, in The New York Public Library there took place the Forbes 400 Summit on Philanthropy. One of the speakers was Melissa Menke who was awarded a Forbes 400 Fellowship.

If you are a regular reader of this blog and Melissa’s name seems familiar you may have come across it here.

Trainees of mine might be disappointed that this is not a bald opening, but with only four minutes Melissa doesn’t have time to open with pretty stories. She has to lay out her stall right away. To do so without a greeting might seem churlish, so she is rather forced to have a preamble. “Good morning, I’m Melissa…” is about as short as any preamble could be.

Her first twenty seconds go a little too fast. It is difficult to know whether this is nervousness or an anxiety to fit the speech into its time-slot. But actually the reason is irrelevant because speaking too quickly is such a well known nerve symptom that the audience will automatically interpret it that way, so it is to be avoided.

It is to be avoided not just for that reason. Speaking too quickly to save time is essentially futile. Let us look at the mechanics of it. The actual words are not articulated significantly faster: the speed is in the closing of the gaps between words, in particular the natural pauses between phrases and sentences. I reckon everyone who has ever edited speech-audio has tried to save time by closing these gaps, and we’ve all done it only once because we’ve learnt the painful lesson. It doesn’t work! It’s a mug’s game: you slave for hours trimming these things, turn around and find that you’ve saved just a few lousy seconds.

Never speak too fast in an attempt to save time: take out a sentence or two instead. Otherwise your words and sentences can tumble over each other faster than the listener can absorb them.

Is that happening to Melissa? Barely, but I had to find something to criticize.

This is a beautiful piece of speaking! Nothing gets between her and her natural communication with her audience – and the most important word there is ‘natural’.  I defy you to find any sign of artifice or insincerity. These are real things told you by a real person who is sufficiently comfortable to speak with no invisible masks or screens getting in the way.

I don’t known how much I can claim any credit via the video link sessions we had, but I couldn’t be more proud of her.

Damian Green not a copper’s nark

The Oxford Union held a debate on the motion “This House Has No Confidence in Her Britannic Majesty’s Police Force“. It is by any measure a sensitive subject so I intend to cover four of the speeches in the debate.

I have already examined speeches by Anthony Stansfeld, Graham Stringer MP, and David Davis MP. Finally, today, we look at the speech in opposition from Damian Green MP.

Damian Green used to be a TV presenter. Before that he was in radio. For nine years he was a broadcast journalist, and for twice as long as that he has been a Member of Parliament. Many might assume that this would guarantee his public speaking skill. My experience shows that this is not necessarily so. For one thing broadcasters don’t see their audience, and for another Members of Parliament do too much of their speaking in the chamber where everything is rather stylized. Let’s see.

This is an amusing opening. The audience enjoys it enough not only to laugh, but one person tries to applaud.

He has at his disposal various pieces of weighty ethos, not least his spell as Police Minister, but he mentions that only obliquely. Instead he brings up his arrest in 2008, on suspicion of “aiding and abetting misconduct in public office”. While he was in opposition, a junior civil servant had leaked him documents that seemed to indicate failings on behalf of the government’s handling of Home Affairs. The arrest was highly controversial, seemed to be entirely political, and he was released without charge after a few hours questioning. Politicians on all sides were intensely critical of the actions of the police. This story might seem at first sight almost to be reverse ethos, till Green points out that no one will now accuse him of being a ‘copper’s nark’.

The speech is well delivered. Like David Davis he looks at his papers very sparingly and then usually to get a name right in some story. After the comedy of the first minute, this is coldly focused purely on the arguments he is promoting.

He tells the notorious story of the cold-blooded gunning down of two unarmed police officers, Nicola Hughes and Fiona Bone, just two days into his spell as Police Minister. He is illustrating the deadly hazards of being a police officer, but surely this is a straw man argument. Everyone knows that the police have a dangerous job, but how can this excuse corruption like the manufacture of evidence or the taking of bribes? Being the victim of persecution does not paint you virtuous: how you react to it might, but the police too often not reacting properly is the other side’s case.

In terms of his debating strategy he seems too eager to chase down these blind alleys. He does it right up to his parting shot, “…recognize that the police out there are doing a tough job, and that most of them do it really well” That’s virtually saying, “…only some of them are villains”. Or try this, “It’s really difficult being a brain surgeon, and most of them won’t kill you.”

I haven’t been able to find out which side won the debate, but on the basis of the speeches I’ve heard I know which way I’d have voted.