Brendan O’Neill – should shed the paper.

This is from the Auracle newsletter of July ’12

As I sometimes do I was browsing one evening in a desultory fashion through YouTube, wondering whether I might happen upon interesting material.  I did.  What caught my eye was the name Brendan O’Neill. He is the editor of Spiked, one of the online newspapers that I sometimes read; and though I don’t always agree with what he and his paper say I enjoy the maverick muscularity with which it is argued.

I was eager to discover whether he carried that characteristic through into his speaking. I like mavericks. I came across two speeches that he made in the past year.  Firstly let’s look at one he delivered at St Stephen’s Club in Westminster on 7 September.

He’s a talking head. He’s reading a script. His natural medium is writing so he has written this speech as a script, enjoyed turning some well-crafted sentences, and now he’s regurgitating it orally. Anyone who has done a course with me, read The Face & Tripod, or just read this blog knows how ferociously eager I am to tear paper props away from speakers. This speech contains some pleasing bits of writing and I would have enjoyed reading it, but I absolutely don’t want to hear it.  I want him shooting from the hip.  He wants it too, though he doesn’t know it.  Look how uncomfortable he is. He never stops fidgeting; and it’s that particular brand of fidgeting that indicates a want of inner calm. You may remember I pointed to Boris Johnson’s unwittingly displaying stress by rubbing the back of his head. O’Neill does it at 1.55, and again later several times.

Shortly after the 8-minute mark he begins lifting his eyes for longer periods from his script, and every time the quality of his speaking lifts also. As he passes 10 minutes there’s very little dependence on the script, and the delivery becomes immeasurably better. Look how well he narrates the Notting Hill Carnival incident. He is following Cardinal 1: he has ‘something to say’ and he is shooting it from the hip. He could not be illustrating more clearly the case that I repeatedly make to trainees, and also made in The Face & Tripod, for throwing away your paper.

Now let us examine a speech he made in a debate at last year’s Wilderness Festival. The motion is “New technology is creating more serious problems than it is solving”, and O’Neill is speaking for it. My comments are largely the same as for the previous, except this time with added microphone popping. This last point is not entirely his fault. As he begins, someone is still crouching in front of him adjusting the microphone. He speaks too loudly for a microphone and, though we might sympathise with his having to cope with speaking in a tent, he spoke too loudly also in the previous speech.  He needs to work on microphone technique.

He concludes his carefully scripted-and-read presentation, and then from 7:35 onwards he is cross-examined. Essentially therefore we are into Q&A. Now he has no choice but to shoot from the hip; and of course he becomes a different speaker, a much better one. Now he is absolutely proving that scriptless he is not only coherent and articulate but also that he still spontaneously trots out the well-turned phrases.

Using a script is for him worse than useless, because not only is it unnecessary not only does it rob him of his spontaneity, but it acts as a screen between him and his audience.  He does not need to read his speeches. He does not need paper.  He needs to learn how to do without it.  He needs The Face & Tripod.

Boris Johnson – fumbling fakery?

After I did my critique of Ken Livingstone I decided to find a speech by his opponent, Boris Johnson, for analysis. This appeared in the June ’12 Auracle Newsletter.

Because my niche is the business world I wanted to work on a speech that could be termed ‘formal’. This was not because I felt my readers would be bored by the style of his more spontaneous outpourings (quite the contrary!) but for reasons of relevance. For them to glean benefit from a critique of a speech, it needs to be as close as I can get it to the sort of speech they might find themselves having to give. It took a lengthy, time-consuming, highly entertaining and informative search to find it.

Boris is giving a keynote speech at the MIPIM Real Estate conference in Cannes, in March 2011.

His introduction by Christophe Chupot lasts precisely one minute, and there is a relevance there that I shall explore shortly.

I can sit here and pontificate on what Boris does right and what he does wrong; but I do so at peril of making a fool of myself. Have you seen this quite-well-known YouTube clip?  Arnold Schwarzenegger, waiting to address a Conservative Party conference over a satellite link, hears Boris preceding him. He whispers to a bystander at his end that this man is “fumbling all over the place”. When this was subsequently reported to Boris he dismissed criticism from a “monosyllabic Austrian cyborg”. The proof of the pudding is a relatively flourishing London compared with a virtually bankrupt California. You always have to bear in mind that Boris is not only bright academically, but has proved to be adroit politically and competent in office. I could compile a considerable list of issues I would address were I advising him, but in the back of my mind I would have the sound of the positive response I keep hearing from his audience. Your audience is your market, and I am a devout believer in the market. I suspect very strongly that he would reply to most – if not all – of my points that they were deliberate devices achieving particular aims; and I’d have a devil of a task, trying to marshal arguments against his track record of proven popularity and electoral success.

Here, for instance, is something significant. How long was his allotted slot – twenty minutes? Probably – it usually is. His speech finishes as the digital counter hits 20:57. Subtract his introduction of exactly one minute. This means that Boris, after “fumbling all over the place” comes out 3 seconds before his deadline. Awesome accuracy! Who dares claim that was just luck?

It seems glaringly obvious that this bumbling and fumbling that is so much a part of the Boris image is camouflaging a mind like a razor.  What is less obvious is why.  I wonder whether he created this camouflage as a defence at school, or later as a political tool.  I’m already outside my brief so let’s look at the speech –

He leaps out of his chair, takes possession of the lectern, and though he’s at the height of his hump (yes, of course he has one!) and though he begins by thanking Christophe for the introduction, he is not looking at him but straight out front. When you are nervous there’s huge pressure to seize a legitimate reason to look anywhere but at the audience, but he spurns it. Pause at 1:07, and you see him holding the lectern and leaning forward eagerly like a prop forward about to engage in a scrum. This is a man who is channelling all his nerves into transmitting his message.

  • 1:23 Leave those bloody microphones alone, Boris! He points them at his mouth and for the rest of the speech they are popping like Rice Krispies. Actually, if the conference organisers knew their stuff, they would have better microphones. There are some that will not ‘pop’ whatever you do. They cost a little more, but hey! Here, though, I feel a dark suspicion creeping in: I looked at a lot of Boris’ speeches while seeking this one, and in nearly all of them he ‘popped’. Furthermore, in one of them he kept tapping for emphasis on the lectern to which the microphone was attached. The sound was thus conducted to the PA system and the resultant percussion was maddening! Please, Boris, don’t tell me that you are doing this on purpose to keep people awake!
  • 2:04 He shields his eyes to find someone in the audience. He does it several times during the speech. I’ll say more about that later.

He is very good indeed at reading from a script, and yet sounding spontaneous (I’d prefer him not to be using a script at all, but he’s a mayor in office and very busy). One of the devices he uses to achieve that – as part of his apparent fumbling – is interrupting himself with manic interjections. It’s a form of anapodoton and his being a scholar of the classics you can bet your shirt (even in this lousy weather) that he knows not only the device but the word. And, lest you wanted me to illustrate anapodoton, I’ve stuck a couple of tame ones in this paragraph.

N.B. reading the script does mean that he ‘pops’ every time he lowers his face to the lectern.

  • 2:40 He lists cities that have been studied as part of growth research, but rather than just reeling off names he strengthens the list by putting the words “They looked at -” in between the names. That rhetorical device is called polysyndeton and you can bet your… &c.  (And that tailing-off is another form of anapodoton: is there no end to the information you are getting today!)
  • 3:51 Anaphora.  “We have the…”
  • 7:57 He corrects himself unnecessarily – “In our preparation for…/…In the run-up to the Olympics…” In the process his eyes never leave the page. What’s the betting that the correction was scripted as part of his brilliantly portrayed “fumbling”?
  • 9:35 Penelope and her suitors. Trust a classical scholar to insert a reference to Homer’s Odyssey.  And look at the tiny mischievous smile that accompanies it!
  • 12:18 More carefully-portrayed fumbling! “And we, and we, and we are on, and we are on a course, we are on a course…” Why do I claim it’s carefully portrayed? I’ve seen him do that so often that it’s almost a mannerism. This is one smart cookie who knows how to create a cuddly image.
  • 13:31 Lovely joke! I won’t spoil it for you; but if you want to go straight to it you need to start further back – say around 13:10.
  • 20:57 Ends! That’s a timing bull’s-eye by any standards.

BUT … he had been intending to conduct a Q&A session at the end. He clearly has not read The Face & Tripod. I lament in my book that everyone in the whole world (except for my trainees) puts Q&A sessions at the wrong place in their presentations. I bow to no one, no not even the mayor of London, on this matter.

I said earlier that I would look at how Boris periodically shielded his eyes to find someone in the audience. I don’t have a problem with that as such; but Boris does have a problem with stage lights. In this speech he has an almost constant dazzle-frown. It’s not unusual: stage lights can feel rather over-bearing, and Boris – commendably – is intent on focussing on his audience. When I direct plays I sometimes teach my principals to ‘love their lights’. You have to get into the counter-intuitive habit of actually widening your eyes to welcome the glare of the lights (your pupils will cope). That way, far from frowning, your facial expression remains more open. And you can make your eyes flash!  I’m not joking: I could teach Boris how to make his eyes flash. But that might compromise his carefully nurtured fumble-image.

Lastly… Did you spot any sign of nerves? I did. There’s one thing he does periodically – his hand comes up to stroke the back of his head. That is an indicator of stress, and I believe it’s hard-wired into us: babies do it, though with babies it tends to signify tiredness. So be reassured: Boris is no more fearless than you. He has simply worked very successfully at concealing his fear. So can you.

Perhaps that’s one reason his hair is always in its trademark mess.

Hilary Benn – better than some, but no cigar.

For the May ’12 Auracle newsletter I had been sniffing around the 2011 Labour Party Conference for speeches that provided interesting study.  I have previously posted a look at Ken Livingstone’s speech; but now –

Also at that conference was a speech by Hilary Benn.  He was looking at a script but not quite as often as some.  (Have you noticed how tolerant I am becoming of politicians who are buried in their scripts?  It’s because I have come to expect no better from them.  Previous generations of politicians didn’t need scripts: you can’t use one when you’re standing on a soapbox.)

What is interesting about his speech is that he has learnt some classic principles and he uses them. It was by no means flawless: for instance there was a problem with the Hump, not just his but the audience’s.  There was no Face, but still there was some copy-book stuff.  Let’s go through it…

  • 0:32  “Where we got it wrong…” he added a dramatic shrug, but his hump caused him to hurry it and render it pointless.
  • 1:21  “We made the right choice that day.”  The audience, still not yet warmed to him, gave merely 4 seconds applause.  [N.B. Par for applause within a speech is 8 seconds.]
  • 1:30  “ I’ve got a bit of news for you.”  This was unnecessary.  The audience had got the point and was already laughing.  In fact this addendum actually suppressed the laugh a little.
  • 1:43  “To protect …”   He used an anaphora triad.
  • 1:45  My writing mentor, a million years ago, told me, “Never ever say never ever”.  Does the same rule apply to speaking?  I’m not sure.
  • 2:25 This would have been funnier if he’d done it later, because (a) he would have delivered it better, and (b) the audience would have been more receptive.  In the event it part-died.
  • 3:16  The audience now warmed up, he got his full 8 seconds of applause.
  • 3:46  “He promised…”  Another anaphora triad, rather a protracted one.
  • 4:48, 5:52, 6:51  Three bouts of applause – all 8 seconds long – and he spread them out, giving the audience around a minute each time to recover.
  • 7:32 “Remind them…” Anaphora, but not a triad.  He extended to 5 elements of repetition.
  • 8:42  “We have the …” Anaphora, and building to his finish he gave this one a whopping 7 elements.  He delivered them all without reference to his script.  He doesn’t need the bloody thing: it’s just a comfort blanket.  Take your thumb out of your mouth, Hilary, and throw away the paper!  You won’t believe how liberating that will feel.

His old man was pretty good – still is.  Hilary Benn now needs to learn to do without a script.   He also needs to be conscious of The Hump – not just his but also that of the audience.  You can’t play an audience anything like as much as he clearly wanted till you have them warmed to you.  In this speech he could have had them standing on their heads after around the 3-minute mark.  Before that he just needed to relax them.

This generation of politicians needs hustings experience.

Ken Livingstone is pretty good.

For the May ’12 Auracle newsletter I went looking through speeches made at the Labour Party Conference in autumn 2011. 

Why are parliamentarians so much weaker at public speaking than they used to be? Is it because I’m getting old? My theory is that the party system makes it less necessary for them actually to go out and engage with the electorate. Open primaries would help.

It took me only about 90 frustrated seconds to switch off Harriet Harman, because if in a couple of hours I can stop people needing to refer to a script at all, why does the deputy leader of the Labour Party need to be buried in hers? It’s pathetic!  For the same reason I meted out similar treatment to Ed Balls. Yes, I know the theory is that ministers need to make so many speeches that they have to have scripts much of the time; but these are not ministers. They’re out of office so that pressure is reduced. What is more this conference occurs just once a year so surely it warrants a little more effort.

And then, still scanning that Conference, I found myself watching Ken Livingstone

I quickly spotted manifold symptoms of nervous Hump at the beginning. I always say that everyone experiences The Hump and is never rid of it; but I also say that experienced speakers get better at disguising it. Livingstone disguises less well than I’d expect: he muffs a word in the first few seconds; his speaking rhythm is all to pot; he adjusts his stance unnecessarily; &c. It takes about 30 seconds for him to settle, but it’s worth waiting for.

As always I stress that it’s beyond my self-appointed brief to comment on what the message is, or to point out that later revelations cast a fresh colour on certain assertions. I didn’t do that to Al Gore and I shall not do it here (paralipsis? Perhaps just a touch). I shall restrict my comments to how this is delivered. My verdict, in a word, brilliantly. His eyes never leave his audience. His gaze swings back and forth a little metronomically, but in a calm unhurried fashion. He’s not using Perspex autocue screens. Is he using screens at the back of the auditorium? I can’t make up my mind!  Sometimes I think so. There’s a tiny indication at 3:09 when a descending cadence, “…leading Tory in Britain…” suggests that he thought wrongly that he’d ended a sentence. And periodically there are other kindred indicators of the material being read as distinct from being spoken spontaneously. But you do have to follow very closely to spot them – so closely that other times I decide that I am wrong.  He is very good at this.

I have declared often enough that politicians have audiences that are generally less tough than business people, and it shows in their frequently being surprisingly disappointing as speakers. Ken Livingstone is an exception on both counts.  He has habitually courted controversy and the tough audiences that are attendant upon that.  He has also – perhaps as a consequence – become a very adroit speaker. If I went to an event to hear a past trainee, and heard a speech delivered as well as this, I’d be well pleased.  It is no surprise that the London Mayoral elections became so captivating.  I’ll be having a look at his opponent very soon.

Obama – speaking flaws.

President Obama is an interesting study for me. Since he first started campaigning for the US presidency, he has been hailed by nearly everyone as a great orator; yet his speaking is flawed in so many areas! For instance, his enunciation is terrible. A reader who happens to be a past trainee has suggested I do a critique of his acceptance speech after the recent election; and that is firmly on my to-do list. Meanwhile here, from the Auraclenewsletter of March 2011, is an observation on how basic errors took the shine off an important, high-profile speech.

On 1 February, 2011, President Obama spoke at The White House about the (then) political turmoil in Egypt. Watching it, I was thinking what a copybook example he was giving us on how not to enunciate. Syllables were going AWOL all over the place. [If you want to know my teaching on enunciation, my book The Face & Tripod covered it briefly and my later booklet Every Word Heard focused specifically on it.]

And then he hit us with this triad,

An orderly transition must be meaningful, it must be peaceful and it must begin now.”

As triads go it’s actually a rather clunky example; but because it was a triad it achieved the desired effect – worldwide headlines.

In The Face & Tripod there’s a Chapter that deals with triads. In it I was principally concerned with using them covertly in order not to alienate the more cynical and sophisticated, triad conscious, members of the audience (because the business world is my niche and business audiences can be very cynical). And with my tongue firmly in my cheek I concluded the chapter with a tiny paragraph that was a veritable orgy of triads – four of them in just over two lines. And I have since found several readers who never even noticed – that’s covert for you!

But let me justify my use of the word ‘clunky’, to criticise Obama’s triad. If you are going to deploy an overt triad, at least make it elegant! Those who have attended my Master-classes are familiar with anaphora: a series of phrases or sentences whose beginnings are the same. Had Obama merely left off the two occasions he used the word ‘it’ we’d have been presented with a triad anaphora. Compare the two by saying them aloud.

His –

“An orderly transition

  • must be meaningful,
  • it must be peaceful, and
  • it must begin now.”

Mine –

“An orderly transition

  • must be meaningful,
  • must be peaceful, and
  • must begin now.”

By simply removing a tiny word I contend that the latter is smoother, more elegant and rhythmic. The former is smudgy and clumsy.  Clunky.

Am I splitting hairs?  Yes of course I am.  But when you are preparing an important speech you should consider the potential value of every fraction of every percent.

And yet, for all that, he got his headlines! There’s the ultimate lesson: triads excite interest – even when they’re clunky. So use them.

Perhaps while I’m about it I also ought to give an example that justifies my dismissal of Obama’s enunciation.  He has clearly worked very hard on portraying statesmanship: his body-language, from his scalp to his toes, screams authority. As part of that he has adopted a manner of speaking that seeks to defy contradiction. That manner causes him to drop heavily at the ends of phrases and sentences. In so doing he loses final syllables. There are dozens of examples: let me give you just one that repeats often. The word ‘people’ invariably comes out as ‘peep’.

It is perfectly possible to deliver that vocal authority without losing syllables: you just need to know how. Maybe someone will tell him – if he’ll listen. Heads of State really do need to get it right.

Christopher Hitchens – WYSIWYG

From Auracle Newsletter, April 2012

Christopher Hitchens died in December 2011. He was widely described as a contrarian; and here he is defending the right of free speech, however unpopular, unfashionable or even offensive that free speech might be. My brief is not to defend his message any more than that of Gore, but let’s look at the speaking style.

Oh Boy! What an opening!

Most of us are familiar with Oliver Wendell Holmes’ example of where free speech becomes unacceptable; but which of us would have thought to use it in this way? – or even if we’d thought of it, would we have dared?

  • And he introduced a bit of humour into the first few seconds –
  • And he got a good laugh with it –
  • But he nevertheless threw it away, rather than debasing the coinage by trying to stoke more into the laugh.

Put a gun to my head and I will admit that he could have delivered that opening better; but had I been advising him I very much doubt that I would have wanted him to. From the very beginning he is conveying sincerity by unapologetically waving his idiosyncrasies at us. Look at the almost tmetic interruption of the Holmes quotation when Hitchens takes a sip of water at absolutely the worst place. (On reflection, I wonder whether that is water.)

Actually this emerges as a habit, almost a mannerism. Several times he pauses before the last word of a sentence, only to glue it onto the beginning of the next. In fact I’m coming round to believe it to have been an affectation, either to retain the audience’s attention or to flaunt his differentness. At any rate, one of the most stimulating aspects of my work is encountering such eccentricities and then walking the high wire that strives to preserve the best of them while maximising coherence.

He does lose some coherence at times. There are sentences with lengthy and convoluted subordinate clauses which themselves contain subordinate clauses which themselves… &c. And these get nested so deep that you find yourself becoming tense lest he lose the thread while climbing back out – a bit like counting the closing brackets in an equation – and while you are doing that you are not listening properly. There’s another consideration: if a speaker considers his audience intelligent enough to follow him down these labyrinthine corridors of argument then surely – given that these labyrinths tend to consist of parenthetic conditional and hypothetical caveats – the audience is likewise intelligent enough not to need the caveats in the first place. And that’s the sort of sentence he habitually deploys.

Oh Boy! What a closing!

So to conclude, I delight in anyone addressing his audience with such freedom of style. Here and there I’d have liked to tidy the material a little in order to strengthen the message, but the overview impression is wonderful. What You See Is What You Get; and that says sincerity. In fact it says all the right things about a speaker.

But there is one elementary error that infuriates me.

Memo to the conference technical staff – Was there not a semi-competent person around to show him how to stop ‘popping’ the microphone? His percussive consonants were creating irritating explosive pops.  All that was needed was for the mic to have been redirected to point at his eyes or his throat – anywhere but at his mouth.  Come on, guys, this is really basic!

N.B.  It later turned out that the brilliant ending wasn’t an ending at all. This posting is the first of three parts of a much longer speech. The other two parts were scattered elsewhere.  Today you can find the entire speech reassembled here.  You may like to be told that what we have studied so far has barely got him warmed to his theme.  He was not for nothing described, both by himself and by others, as a contrarian.

I still say that would have been a brilliant ending.

Al Gore – a highly polished speech-mask.

From the Auracle Newsletter, April 2012

At the beginning of a seminar I conducted recently I told those attending that I would pause for a short while, inviting them to use the silence to dip into their memories to choose a speech that had deeply impressed them. When I resumed I invited a few of them to tell us about their choice (some of you will remember seeing me do this at seminars). On that occasion one of those choices was a speech by Al Gore. A few days later, therefore, I went looking for an Al Gore performance; and I found one here.  Gore delivered it on 17 July 2008.

I watched in awe at the way Gore has polished Speech Mode to such a high degree. I used the word ‘performance’ two sentences ago; and that is the best word I can find to describe this. Here is the reciting of a script that has been crafted and refined, syllable by syllable. We can tell he is not reading it from the lectern. Is he therefore prompted by auto-cue screens at the back of the hall? Possibly: there is a moment at 19:35 when he says “made”, a nanosecond later realises he means “made-up”, and the word “up” squeezes itself in as an afterthought. This sort of thing is a common symptom of misreading as distinct from miss-reciting. Nevertheless from other indicators I actually think he’s learnt this script and rehearsed it to within an inch of its life.  For instance at 11:20 he steamrollers over an unexpected laugh: a strong sign of pre-decreed Rhythm That Must Not Be Broken. And though there are other indicators I’ll spare you.

He opens with nearly 2 minutes of saponaceous thanks and tributes (he is a politician), including some schmaltzy references to his family (I told you he was a politician). The names spill out in profusion because he is far too experienced to overlook an elementary detail like that (The Face & Tripod chapter on Proper Nouns). It’s all as silky smooth as could be. Then at 1:55 something fascinating happens. Into this hyper-lubricated routine he needs to drop a new unrehearsed module because some people in his audience have been bereaved and are in mourning. His eyes drop to the lectern, and for 15 seconds he gives some details of the decease. This comes with a few ‘ums’, ‘ers’ and that particular halting delivery that characterises spontaneity even from an Olympic-standard performer. That is the only piece of spontaneity in the entire speech. At 2:20 he changes gear completely with the words, “Ladies and Gentlemen”. Thereafter he wears a speech-mask.

Personally I detest speech masks, though I admit that this is a very good one. If you want to try to develop one as good as his then bear in mind what he tells us at 11:10 that you are watching someone who entered Congress 32 years earlier. The trouble is, for all the 32 years of burnishing the mask, we know he is not speaking spontaneously because we saw for 15 seconds what that looked like.

When I began teaching public speaking many audiences still wanted this kind of highly-polished oratory. It signalled authority. Today people are cynical enough to prefer clear signs of sincerity, and that requires a more conversational, spontaneous style of speaking.

Even as a piece of polished oratory this is not a good example.  Not only is it riddled with weasel words and assertions that he doesn’t bother to substantiate, it has metaphorically the oiled hair, the over-fastidious clothes and patent-leather shoes of the gigolo. And that doesn’t signal sincerity very well. Rightly or wrongly, to me it signals phoney.

I could not leave it quickly enough. It gave me the creeps.