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.

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