Martin Vander Weyer. Jolly but nebulous.

On 29 January, 2014, the York Union held a debate on the motion, “This House Believes Thatcherism Must Be Abandoned To Save Britain’s Economy”. 

This blog has visited the Oxford Union countless times, and the Cambridge Union quite often, but it took a specific search for an example of a speech by Martin Vander Weyer for me to discover the York University equivalent, of which I see he is Patron. I feel rather ashamed at my laziness in not having found it before. Ferreting now around their website reveals a rich seam for me to mine, and I look forward to doing so.

I searched for an example of Vander Weyer’s  speaking because I enjoy reading him in The Spectator, where he is business editorIn this debate he is speaking in opposition to the motion.

What a super opening! It is not just that it is funny, it is not that he pokes jovial, unmalicious fun at previous speakers, but what causes the audience to laugh and keep laughing is that not once does he beg a laugh or even pause. He just ploughs on through the hilarity till suddenly you realise that he has turned serious. It is one of the finest examples of brilliantly executed throw-away opening humour that I have found. There is a lesson here for all speakers, if they encounter the right circumstances.

I do wish he weren’t using paper. He manages it very well, not letting it spoil his rhythm; but paper, even if it isn’t a script but merely notes, imposes a negative force on any speech.

In order to shoot a speech from the hip, you need two things. You need to know how to, and in order to dare to do it you need to know you can. (Vander Weyer knows he can: he proves it during that excellent opening.) In order for it to be feasible you need to apply a series of very strong structural rules to the content. The rules are simple and once learned can be easily applied. With practice it is also very quick – quicker than writing notes.

But here’s the clincher argument. That structure, making the whole route of the speech crystal clear in your mind, makes it simultaneously more digestible for the audience. Digestible makes memorable. I’ve watched this speech a couple of times, and although I obviously know the general gist of it I am not sitting here knowing precisely what I’ve heard. The message is slightly nebulous. If he’d applied the right discipline to the structure it would be starkly clear.

It’s the paper’s fault: it excused him that discipline.

 

Michael Dobbs. The hit man shoots from the hip

I calculate that on 14 June, 2016, the Oxford Union hosted a talk and Q&A by Lord Dobbs, aka Michael Dobbs, author of House of Cards. On 18 August a video of the talk was published on YouTube where I found it. The descriptive text on YouTube doesn’t give the date of the talk itself, but repeatedly during the video there is reference to the EU referendum being nine days away.

I must be one of the very few people on the planet to have sampled none of Dobbs’ books nor so much as an episode of any of the television series of House of Cards, though obviously having heard of them. This is not through deliberate choice, but simply because they came along at times of my life when I was not reading much fiction nor watching much television. I have no doubt that this is my loss; but it does give me the advantage of approaching the following with no preconceptions.

My immediate impression is one of a charming, affable bloke with very good audience approach. I have read that The Guardian once described him as “Westminster’s baby-faced hit man”. I can see the baby-face, but must take the “hit man” on trust. Of course, his being a Conservative The Guardian would see him as the enemy.

He quickly commits a basic speaking error, which every one of my trainees would pick up. His opening humour is too overt, so he is exerting pressure on his audience to laugh. This, counter-intuitively, is why they don’t – or at least not as much as he wants. They are good stories but he needs more covertly to sneak this stuff up on them, at least cutting out the funny voices. Never be seen to beg laughs, particularly at the beginning.

Two-and-a-half minutes in, which is standard, his hump recedes and he’s on a roll. It’s a very good roll. His first section concerns himself, his early career in politics as Mrs Thatcher’s Chief of Staff, his being eventually cast into the darkness by her and almost by accident turning to writing House of Cards. He has clearly done a great deal of speaking and it shows. This material has been thoroughly road-tested, so he shoots it confidently from the hip. Although he has travelled down this route more times than he can count, his actual words are spontaneous. That says to the audience all the right things about him  – sincerity, command of subject, etc. That’s why we listen to him; and it’s worth listening because it’s an intriguing story.

Next he turns to an interesting treatise on the subject of political leadership. This is likewise shot from the hip, and fascinating. For twelve years he worked closely with one of the very few political titans of our age, so his views on the subject are more than valid. That concludes the speech.

At 25:20 he threw himself open to Q&A, and I certainly thought he had thoroughly seeded the lion’s share of the questions. The EU referendum was nine days away: he had mentioned it prominently at the very beginning of his talk, and again at the end, saying that he would be happy to talk about it later. Surely we would now see a tsunami of questions on the subject. I was overlooking the gigantic popularity of his books and the TV series they have spawned. For half an hour all the questions were about House of Cards and about writing, culminating in an hilarious account of his wife’s opinion of the sex scenes.

Finally the chairman of the meeting actively solicited questions about the EU referendum and at 55:00 there began questions whose answers I, armed with hindsight, found riveting.

Though I would not hasten its coming, when the day arrives when I can sit with time on my hands I look forward to reading House of Cards or watching a TV boxed set.

Michelle Obama’s voice wobbles

On this blog we have already examined the acceptance speech made by Hillary Clinton at the recent Democratic National Convention. There was also glowing praise in the media for another speech, this time by the USA’s current First Lady, Michelle Obama. This was not a surprise: she can do no wrong for the mainstream media, and could probably get away with a turkey of a speech. Nevertheless, I thought I’d lay cynicism aside and view it for myself.

That still frame has a title over it, claiming that she cries when speaking of her daughters. I do hope not.

After nearly three and a half minutes of video and adulation from the crowd, which is absolutely to be expected and under the circumstances fair enough, she begins speaking. Within seconds I am reminded why I do not work in this sort of sphere. I am rather averse to political speaking. My stamping ground is with speakers who have to sway tough cynical audiences without recourse to political smoke and mirrors. A business person caught lying is sacked (unless in the public sector, in which case will probably be unobtrusively promoted). A politician is expected to lie.

I’m not accusing Mrs Obama of lying, but she is playing a rôle in a show that is of necessity built from deceit. Look at the syrupy phoniness of the way this thing is stage managed. Look at the shots of audience members gazing with worship. I try not to.

Though she will have received training she doesn’t cope very well with a teleprompter. You can see that rather glassy stare when the eyes focus just south of the camera. Nevertheless she forges on like a trooper.

The schmaltz concerning her daughters begins immediately, and I admit that it is difficult to conceive what else she could talk about. The First Lady can’t wade in on matters like the systematic dismantling of those parts of the US Constitution that protect the people’s freedoms. She can’t talk about how the country is markedly less safe, less free and less prosperous than it was eight years ago. She absolutely has to stick to how her heart sings with joy when watching her daughters playing on the White House lawn.

That essentially is this speech in a nutshell, and she makes a reasonable fist of it. The audience laps it up. The voice gets a bit of a wobble for a brief moment, and I find myself wishing that her coach had spent that time on the teleprompter instead.

At least she doesn’t cry.

Milo Yiannopoulos likes it two ways

At the Conway Hall in London on 16 August there was held the launch of the Young British Heritage Society. This society appears to be an attempt at an antidote to the National Union of Students. The NUS hasn’t impinged on my life for a decade or four, though I occasionally read their pronouncements in the press.  These indicate that an antidote of some sort might be a good idea.

As the launch-event keynote speaker they had booked the services of one whom they described as “the most fabulous supervillian on the internet”, Milo Yiannopoulos. I featured him on this blog not long ago, but not very satisfactorily. The speech in question dissolved into shambles as many members of the audience staged a noisy walk-out.

Milo has made himself into something of a phenomenon. With his carefully studied OTT campness, he has become a considerable cult-figure. In a sense he is using the same “ain’t I pretty!” tactic as a young boxer called Cassius Clay in the early sixties. It’s a very powerful device to polarise the public into loving or hating you and hence to inflate your box-office value.

But you have to be good enough to deliver. Clay (later to become Muhammad Ali) certainly delivered, and Milo in his field also delivers. He writes well, and has the gift of the gab. Think hind legs and donkeys. As well as being very thoroughly briefed and replete with data, he is remarkably quick-witted. You could put up the most feared interviewers in broadcasting and I wouldn’t back them against him, because whether by accident or design he is possessed of one particular characteristic which is devastating. I may return to that later.

None of the foregoing necessarily makes him a good public speaker, even though he does a lot of it. Let’s have a look.

It’s a tiny bit more than an hour long, one third speech and two thirds Q&A. I’ve watched it all, several times, and now I have both bouquets and brickbats to bestow. Let’s get the brickbats over…

The first third is the weakest. During the 23rd minute he begins Q&A, and at that moment this thing takes off. I mean it goes into orbit. I mentioned earlier how good he is in interviews, so we should hardly be surprised that two-way conversational traffic is his comfort zone – even if he’s the one doing all the talking. Questions are mother’s milk to him.

Preceding the Q&A is a speech. That is one-way traffic; and comparatively it’s clunky as hell. He’s using many of the same modules as during the Q&A, but the bridges between them are non-existent. The reason is that he apparently believes, as far too many do, that the substitute for being asked questions is using a bloody script. Will they never learn!

Also, for one who makes many speeches, his audience-handling is startlingly inept. Too often when one of his outrageous statements triggers a laugh he fails to capitalise. This is sometimes because the laugh is spontaneous and surprises him. The set-piece humour is too contrived and seldom works. Let’s quickly move to the bouquets…

Dip at random into the Q&A and you’ll get the impression is that here’s someone who loves the sound of his voice so much that he just gabbles uncontrollably. Completely deceptive. His answers are actually very disciplined and tight. Consider this statistic. The last 44 minutes end in a six minute peroration (it’s very good), and the previous 38 minutes contain 12 questions and their answers.  Allow ten seconds for each question, and the average answer therefore takes three minutes. Each is laden with hilarious and inevitably outrageous anecdotage, yet still provides its serious answer. The man is brilliant.

He just needs to learn how to make speeches.

Barry Poulson isn’t fluffy

In my previous post, which was on Hillary Clinton’s acceptance speech, I made reference to the current USA administration – of which Mrs Clinton has been a key part – having presided over that country’s being indebted to the tune of “$20-odd trillion”. I am not in a position to know the true figures, but here’s a man who is.

Dr Barry Poulson delivered a talk to the Heartland Institute. It was entitled How Can Fiscal Rules Fix the American Government? 

How indeed? He begins at 04:19. There are severe sound-problems prior to his beginning: persevere.

I do nearly all my work with business speaking. It has particular demands on the speaker, like precision and conciseness. It is also perceived (often wrongly) to be rather hard-edged; and for this reason I enjoy helping people package tough issues in a way that makes them seem relatively fluffy.

Here we have a speaker from an academic environment. His first impression is an avuncular one. Almost immediately we are made to feel that he has all the time in the world, and reckons we have too. He even wanders off to get a drink of water, and is gone for ages; later he becomes inaudible for a time when he takes root on the wrong side of the screen. This man, we tell ourselves, doesn’t need fluffy packaging: he’s already fluffy. Beware! From what I’ve seen of academia it can be every bit as cut-throat as the business world, so ignore sheep’s clothing. The only licence that academics could have over business-people might be freedom from immediate and terminal accountability. Get it wrong and usually you can go back to the drawing board.

Poulson is dealing with an issue (national debt) that everyone has been getting scandalously wrong, and he quickly makes the point that neither of the presidential candidates is talking about it, presumably because there are no votes in it according to the pollsters (remember pollsters? – they’re the people that keep getting it wrong). This is where the $20 trillion number comes up. It exceeds GDP. On this matter Poulson isn’t fluffy: Capitol Hill is. The Executive seems to regard Venezuela as a rôle model.

His message is that without fundamental changes of fiscal direction the USA is toast. That may be unthinkable, but it is feasible and doesn’t have fluff.

There is a way out, and he spends half an hour telling us what it is. Here’s a clue: it’s a little more grown up than taxing the ‘super-rich’, which is why politicians might prefer to see their country gurgling down the drain than put it to the people. Politicians seem to be convinced that people are stupid. That’s why they call themselves ‘leaders’ and expect to be followed by sheep. They are not leaders, they are representatives. They have been delegated to attend to matters, like the nation’s finances, and to do so with competence or be booted out.

The US Constitution begins with its three most important words,

We    The    People.

The United Kingdom does not have a written constitution, but on 23 June We The People were presented with a rare chance to exercise a vote that made a difference. They rose to the opportunity, exercised grown-up judgement, made it clear they were the masters, and what their command was. Their command was the one that would keep them in charge. This was in the teeth of flawed [that’s a euphemism] arguments and judgements being fed to them by ‘leaders and experts’ of all descriptions, including the current US President. They showed they were not sheep to be led, but delegators of responsibility. The sheep among them have been bleating piteously ever since.

Politicians really do need to wake up to the probability that We The People are at least as bright as they, and do something really revolutionary like telling the unfluffy truth. Then possibly they might find that their candour wins them votes, and the USA might just be saved.

Hillary Clinton talks the talk

On 28 July at the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, Hillary Clinton delivered her acceptance speech for her nomination as the Democratic Party’s candidate for the upcoming USA Presidential Election.

I tip my hat to whoever wrote this speech. It is a rhetorical masterpiece. I have never seen better. Furthermore, Clinton delivers it very well. Her use of autocue is discreet, her diction exemplary (far better than Obama’s). If I were merely critiquing this as a piece of speaking, I would stop there – what more is there to be said? But the brilliance of its writing and delivery hide more than a multitude of sins. It has quite a high PQ rating.

As I observed when critiquing Donald Trump’s equivalent offering a few days ago, I shall have no vote in the election. Nevertheless because its result will have effects way beyond its own shores, I am still interested.

In Trump’s case I pointed out that though he highlighted America’s ills he failed to offer much in the way of solutions. Clinton doesn’t even acknowledge the ills.  I suppose it might be seen as tactically imprudent – for instance – to make much of the way the Union is insolvent to the tune of $20-odd trillion when you were part of the administration that presided over that state of affairs. One claim I read recently had it at $60 trillion – a trillion here and a trillion there and pretty soon you’re talking real money. At any rate the number contains almost as many zeros as were honoured in Cameron’s lavender list.

I have also read that this President has borrowed more than all previous incumbents put together. Is that true? I don’t know: I don’t have access to the raw data, but with that sort of claim hanging over your CV it does seem tactless to occupy so much of a speech like this boasting about how much more you plan to spend. Sooner or later you will run out of other people’s money (arguably they already have). And speaking of CVs, Clinton’s isn’t exactly squeaky.

Many years, or possibly decades, ago I was in the USA shortly before another Presidential election. I cannot (cross my heart!) remember who the two candidates were at that time, but I do remember being amused by a button badge that was widespread…

Any Turkey for President.

Donald Trump is loud

After the Republican National Convention in Cleveland, Ohio, a couple of weeks ago everywhere was buzzing with Donald Trump’s acceptance speech. So I just had to go and look!

It is more than 75 minutes long, so I’ll keep my comments brief.

I suppose it is in the nature of such jamborees that the speaker is expected to bellow all the time. My pondering whether Americans have heard of microphones would be less than courteous, and naughty; but in case anyone wonders let me make it clear that with only a rudimentary grasp of microphone technique Trump would be completely audible if he spoke to this hall as if he were speaking across a dining table. If he speaks like this across his dining table I do hope I’m never invited.

Actually, in all seriousness, if he spoke as if across a dining table he would be more audible, because he often commits an error that is quite widespread. I call it disproportionate syllable stress. The speaker, when raising  his voice, hammers the bejabers out of stress syllables at the expense of subordinate syllables which disappear completely. Subordinate syllables are almost always at the ends of words, and there are several parts of this speech where word-ends go AWOL. (Obama does it worse, by the way.)

Other than that technical observation I’ll merely say that Trump is a very good speaker.

I should not be concerned with what says – I am not an American voter – but while we’re here…

If you wrote a memo to your line manager, identifying in detail what was going wrong with your company, he might appreciate your frankness. If in the process you nevertheless failed to make adequate suggestions as to what should be done to correct the problems he might be less than satisfied. This is the principal problem with this speech. Trump highlights very effectively what is wrong with the administration of the USA, but is rather light on suggested remedies.

I shall be looking next at Hillary Clinton’s acceptance speech.