Daniel Hannan: smooth as a kitten’s wrist.

From Auracle Newsletter for March, 2012

For a couple of months I have been gestating for this newsletter, a critique on a speech made by Daniel Hannan MEP to a distinguished audience of mainly Germans and British.

Then a few weeks ago the EU parliament had a recess and Hannan went off on a tour of the Anglosphere. Very soon Twitter began buzzing with how he had wowed an American audience which was an interesting comparison with the previous example as it showed how – true to Cardinal 2 in The Face & Tripod – he varied his delivery to match his audience. I was just wondering whether to make a choice between them or conduct a comparison of the two, when twittering began afresh on a speech to an Australian audience.  In no time the Twitterati were getting excited over another speech he had made in Canada, but I decided I had enough for this exercise.

1. In May 2011 a debate was held at the Royal Geographical Society. The Motion was, “Germany no longer needs Europe – the dream is over”. Hannan spoke for the motion. His opening is brilliant: he captures the imagination immediately, making a strong argument in the process. Furthermore he attributes the argument to others, thereby doing several clever things simultaneously. He burnishes his image by modestly stepping aside from taking the credit; he inflates the credibility of the argument by citing distinguished authors by name (remember the proper noun directive in F&T); and he heads off any criticism of non-originality.

Which of my past trainees remembers my talking of the ‘muffed-word-test’? Essentially this is not about whether you muff words, which everyone does occasionally, but about how well you correct it with good humoured smoothness. Now watch Hannan at 2:50.

Dig out your copy of F&T and re-read the small section entitled ‘Negotiate’. Then watch this speech from 4:12. Hannan hands out a succession of bouquets to buy enough credit for the message he reaches at around 5:00.

At 5:25 he addresses what could be a knotty issue and dramatizes it well enough to elicit a ripple of laughter and applause; but because it is a knotty issue he speaks on through the applause in order not only to minimise it but be seen to minimise it lest anyone in the audience should take offence. This man is very smart and skilled.  Now let’s look at the second speech listed.

2. In February 2012 Hannan was one of the speakers at CPAC (Centre for American Politics & Citizenship).  In his opening, he uttered words he would never have used in the previous speech, “I gotta tell you…” This is a classic example of tailoring to your audience, as I direct in Cardinal 2 of F&T.  Did you, like me, hold your metaphorical breath lest he took it too far – what one might call ‘the oldest swinger in town’ syndrome? In the event he stopped comfortably short of that. You can hear the atmosphere buzzing in the hall, and he responds to it with just enough controlled ‘mirroring’.

At 4:00 he gives us some throw-away humour concerning the phallic shape of the Washington Monument; but, true to the throw-away principle (see my chapter on humour), he does not beg a laugh but continues as if he’d never said it – and gets a huge laugh. He also delivers the humour in a way that is oblique enough for anyone who might have been offended not to understand it. Very sound.

At 16:30 he gives us an anaphora repetition – less prosperous, less independent, less democratic, less free. Does he harpoon a potential triad by having four elements in his repetition or are the first three the triad which are then emphasised and locked into place, as it were, through the addition of the fourth? I think the latter, because he stops enumerating with his fingers after the third. At any rate, it all works beautifully because it receives a very respectable six seconds of applause, which could easily be longer except he curtails it by starting speaking again.

That’s the second time in this critique that I have found him choosing to kill his own applause. Consider: if by not begging laughter or applause you enhance your standing with your audience, how much more do you do it by actively suppressing them?  In the blink of an eye he conveys an eagerness to get on with imparting the message and the security of an ego that does not need reassurance from applause. Myriad positive messages are being transmitted.

When a speaker is as good as this I cannot help but be super-picky. If you’ve read F&T you know how keen I am on the use of parallels. For some years I edited a rather scholarly wine journal. At 26:38 Hannan goes into a viticulture anecdote-and-metaphor that is true but technically incorrect in a tiny detail which though small is crucial enough fatally to undermine the parallel. What a party-pooping stinker I am to have told you that! Let’s move to the third…

3. Later in February 2012 Hannan spoke at the Institute of Public Affairs in Melbourne. At the start I suspect you might be as bemused as I at how sombre he appears to be with an Australian audience. Also we do not seem to have joined it quite at the beginning. This bothered me so much that I dug some more; and I found another source of the speech here. It turns out that the first version begins just over 12 minutes into the whole thing. Perhaps more significantly that version claims to have been posted by Hannan himself, so it was he who apparently edited out those first 12 minutes before posting – in which case he needs to consider hard the difficulties and dangers of that sort of self-editing.

(There is on YouTube a severely cut-down version of a reading I did in 2010 of the whole of the Gospel of St Mark. I did the cutting-down. Several people who were there have observed that I cut out and I kept the wrong bits – and I fear they may be right.) Hannan’s exuberant seduction of his audience in the first few minutes of the uncut version of this speech is lovely to witness, and a rare public insight into his fun-time personality. But he excised all that in favour of later serious arguments which we can see him making a hundred times elsewhere.  I’d be the last to quarrel with his enthusiasm for his message – that’s Cardinal 1, a cornerstone of my training – but in this instance it may have caused an error.

This man is a first class speaker. For one thing he is beautifully economical; and I can identify at least two reasons for this. There are strict time limits on speeches in the EU parliament, so he has trained himself to get on, package his point clearly, and get off. You can see examples all over YouTube.

And he has learnt that the way to use fewer words is to use only the right ones. Those who have attended master classes with me will verify that I advocate the reading aloud of poetry as a way to improve many skills in this medium. Beautiful and economic turns of phrase work themselves into your mind by osmosis and become habit-forming. Not only do you find yourself getting better at finding the right words to convey the precise nuance you seek, but they trip off the tongue with less and less effort. Is there the remotest doubt but that Daniel Hannan is very well read? I began my working life as an actor an aeon ago, and was playing Shakespeare with the National Theatre before he was born; also I have directed half-a dozen Shakespeare productions. But he can out-quote me on Shakespeare without breaking sweat. In the complete version of that speech in Australia he effortlessly quotes 25 seconds of St Matthew’s gospel to make a point. At the 5:10 mark he makes merely the slightest reference to an incident in Jason’s Golden Fleece caper before ‘throwing it away’. All the above speeches are littered with what Logan Pearsall Smith meant when he wrote –

There is one thing that matters, to set a chime of words tinkling in the minds of a few fastidious people.

But such a chime of words can jangle unless delivered with the confidence of familiarity. Hannan is manifestly familiar with everything he quotes – and that’s the key. On one recent occasion in the EU parliament he made a speech which consisted only of a single verse from a poem by G K Chesterton.

So, in conclusion, is he flawless? No, but then no one is. Every so often he allows words to die at the ends of phrases. It is not laziness: his enunciation is exemplary and he uses rising cadences well. It is done deliberately for effect, and it can be very effective, but care has to be taken not to sacrifice intelligibility for that effect. At 7:12 in the second of our speeches there are three examples in quick succession – the words “equivalent”, “independence” and “freedoms”. I’m being picky: President Obama is much worse.

I described Hannan in the title as being smooth as a kitten’s wrist. It’s worth noting that smooth though the feline wrist may be it is in close proximity to some very sharp claws. Hannan has a well-deserved reputation for maintaining strict courtesy to friend and foe alike, yet the speech that drew him to the attention of millions was the one wherein he eviscerated Gordon Brown in the EU Parliament.

There is something else that is interesting about that. The examples of speeches we have examined here I have listed by number, by venue, by date but not by what was said. None of them has a FACE! You try doing a YouTube search with the words “Devalued Prime Minister” and that Gordon Brown speech will fly onto your screen. He gave that speech a FACE – apparently by accident. If he had read F&T, particularly Cardinal 3, perhaps it would have been deliberate; and perhaps he would have made it a habit.

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