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.

Richard Dawkins urges a more romantic view of science

From Auracle Newsletter for February, 2012

I previously dwelt on a speech that Michael O’Leary had delivered in December ’11 at an EU convention on innovation. That same convention was also addressed by Prof. Richard Dawkins; and it is worth having a look at the lessons to be drawn from his speech.

It claims to be 20 minutes long, but the last 3 minutes are actually the following speaker’s introduction.

My book, The Face & Tripod is about the nuts and bolts of public speaking. This speech by Richard Dawkins illustrates very clearly how someone with otherwise all the right equipment to be a topflight speaker can fall short for the lack of some of those nuts and bolts. Here we have a scientist who has obviously delivered hundreds of lectures, and is quite comfortable on his feet in front of audiences. He has also developed a very successful secondary career as a communicator, having published several top-selling books. He has an excellent way with words, and knows how and where to find good ingredients for presentations. And yet…

Well let’s hold on the “and yet” for a moment, and first look at the good ingredients.

There’s a nice little gag starting at 1:28 about violinists’ arms. The gag deserves better than to die on its arse (please forgive a thespian expression which, though coarse, does describe the sensation very vividly).

At 2:18 I felt my interest begin to quicken in response to this progressing anaphora triad –

  • It’s worth it –
  • It’s worth the effort –
  • It’s worth the effort on behalf of the communicator – – –
  • and it’s worth noting that in the short time that he was uttering that his face stayed aloof from the lectern and he looked at his audience.

He shows us very clearly that he has a store of modules available for deployment.

  • There’s a good quotation from Einstein at 2:30.
  • There’s a fascinating geological timeline analogy starting at 12:20, and it follows a riveting piece about bats (the flying mammals – not cricket).
  • After what he tells us, beginning 14:30, I shall never again read anything about the Hadron Collider in quite the same way.
  • Etc.

Now let’s address the “and yet”…

One major problem is that the first 7 minutes are badly hampered by his reluctance to get his face properly out of his wretched script (what I call being a ‘talking head’).  I teach people to outgrow their need for paper assistance of any kind, so they no longer write scripts read scripts or learn scripts (that’s an epistrophe, by the way). Some people think they need scripts to keep themselves on track, others use them as comfort blankets. My impression is that Dawkins is in neither case. I think he is seeking to ensure that he gets the wording right to draw maximum benefit from a few carefully crafted sentences. That’s a mistake.

Speaking is not the same as writing. A reader goes at his own pace. Whether the reader is admiring the quality of the prose or merely being swept along by the narrative is up to him. Therefore the worst a writer does by taking inordinate pains to fashion beautiful sentences is waste his own time; the best he does is delight any reader who appreciates the result. The worst a speaker can do by being “a sophistical rhetorician, inebriated with the exuberance of his own verbosity” is ruin his show. A speaker’s audience has no choice but to go at the speaker’s pace, so the speaker has to make sure never to break the flow. A speaker’s audience member can never look back up the page to remind himself of anything, so the speaker has to make sure he never needs to. Though the two media of speaking and writing do have many techniques in common, they have at least as many differences.

What I’m saying is that following a script in order faithfully to relay brilliantly authored sentences is as foolish as any other reason, because doing it for any reason widens the gap between speaker and audience to a critical degree.  Back to Dawkins.

And then, at the 7-minute mark, everything is transformed when Dawkins begins to recount his experiences as editor of a scientific journal. His head rises, he looks at the room, he speaks with his audience rather than at it and he does it in spontaneous terms.  And this time he doesn’t retreat back to the script. The speech takes off, because now he is no longer a talking head. Now he is driving the narrative; and that is when some of those good modules begin arriving.

But even this improved section could be further improved with added coherence if he had a better understanding of good speaking structures. Individual bits are very good, but the overall shape is so amoebic as to render it frustratingly opaque. (And, curiously, he devotes some of those ten minutes to advocating better writing structures.)

Had he given the whole package a more graspable shape, he needn’t have had a script. He would have placed the violinist-arm gag in a better place and got a laugh with it.  He would have improved his relationship with his audience by narrowing the metaphorical gap between it and him, and by giving his speech a clarity that it otherwise lacked.  And he and the audience would have enjoyed themselves more.

Nuts and bolts! I found myself wanting to thrust a copy of F&T into his hands in the conviction that its analysis of nuts & bolts would remove all that stands between him and speaking excellence.

And he needs to learn about a FACE. Look at what he himself declares to be his main message –

We can learn to appreciate science just as we appreciate a great work of art or music.”

That’s not too bad in writing, but for a speaker it is a spiny thicket of dead wood. It needs to be lightened, tightened and brightened. Ask yourself how much more clearly that would get across to a live audience as –

“Science has beauty, just as art or music.”

Michael O’Leary (Ryanair), on a Brussels stage, bashes EU

From Auracle Newsletter. January ‘12

Towards the end of 2011 there was held in Brussels, hosted by the EU, an Innovation Convention. Speakers at that convention included Michael O’Leary of Ryanair.

He spoke for nearly 18 minutes; and used his time on the platform to speak not only about innovation and innovators but also about Ryanair. That’s fair enough. He’d be crazy to squander the profile opportunity; and anyway, what is the story of Ryanair if not a lesson in innovation? He also used the opportunity to deliver some pretty savage and well-aimed sideswipes at his hosts – the EU – which adds an element of entertainment. (To their credit, the audience took it in good heart.)

The first observation to be made is that O’Leary has completely cut his umbilical cord. Never once during his delivery do I pick up the slightest symptom of his being concerned with himself, or giving a damn about anything except his message and his audience. (You might think that would be a ‘given’ for someone in his position. Trust me: it isn’t.) Let’s look at a few specifics in his speech.

  • He appears to treat his opening so casually that it is tempting to regard it as inconsequential and therefore not worthy of study. That would be a mistake because – whether by accident or design – it is a very clever opening. We clearly join the occasion just as his introduction has finished. He could (and most would) have strode across to the lectern before beginning; but every second of that silent journey would have added to his hump (yes, he has a hump like everyone else). Instead he takes a shillelagh to his hump by starting speaking immediately and speaking all the way to the lectern. Just consider how much he ‘informalises’ the atmosphere by doing this, how much he transmits an eagerness to impart his message, how much he takes instant control of the proceedings, how much he relaxes his audience.
  • 3:22 he throws in a triad/gag in the shape of a good Ronald Reagan quote.  It’s quite funny but the instant impression is that it has died, because the ‘atmos’ sound is turned right down and we don’t hear the laughter.  Luckily we cut to a view of the audience, and see the laughter instead.
  • There is no sign of any script, but he is using PowerPoint or Keynote; and he clearly has a slave screen somewhere down to his left. This he uses as an ‘Idiot Board’ when he starts trotting out statistics. This is better than wielding paper: better than surrendering his focus by turning to look at the big screen: much better than getting statistics wrong.
  • 12:40 (He’s so good that I’m allowing myself to be really picky!) With his hand in the air in front of him, he illustrates a flat-lining graph that suddenly takes off. He does it his way round. If I were advising him I’d get him into the habit of doing such things in mirror image, so that the graph was the right way round for his audience.

Still being picky I found myself thinking that if I were advising him I might get him to do more to segment his three areas of discussion – innovation, Ryanair and anti- EU-sideswipes: the way he mixes them all together has a tendency to muddy the various messages. And then I completely changed my mind, and for a very good reason.

Let’s leave the public speaking arena for a moment and imagine you are being interviewed by a broadcaster with political agenda. If you want to get in some side-swipes that they might not like, then mix them up in the pure gold that you are also uttering. It makes it much more difficult for them to edit out the side-swipes without losing the gold. Therefore for a minor sacrifice of a little coherence you ensure that all your messages strike home. Might whoever shot the video have tried to edit out O’Leary’s anti-EU comments? I actually don’t think so, but anyway they’d have had a hell of a job.

Finally, let’s see whether Michael O’Leary passes Brian’s memorability test (Cardinal 3 in The Face & Tripod). Yes he does! What did he say? He said, “If you want to be an innovator get the hell out of Brussels!”

Portillo – Who Dares Wins. He dared: did this speech win?

Michael Portillo’s Who Dares Wins speech in 1995 has often since been characterised as an embarrassing failure. But was it? This critique is lifted from the December ’11 Auracle Newsletter.

In the mid-nineties I did some work with MORI (now Ipsos MORI); and one day I was having a meeting with their then chairman, Bob (now Sir Robert) Worcester, doyen of pollsters in the UK. A telephone call came through from some press person who was important enough for Bob to interrupt the meeting and answer questions – though he was quite relaxed about my remaining the other side of his desk, ears inevitably flapping. The gist was that the Conservatives stood not a chance at the next election. Since so-called Black Wednesday (September ’92) their stock had fallen so far with the electorate that not even contriving the Second Coming (I’m sure I particularly remember that reference, but my memory could be tricking me) could save them.

This then was the political climate in which Michael Portillo, Defence Minister at the time, made his Who Dares Wins speech at the Conservative Party Conference in 1995. I never saw it or any excerpts on television – I was far too busy. My memory is that it was regarded as an embarrassment. But then most of the main-stream media at the time were running with the anti-Major-government tide. Also any form of expressed patriotism was deeply unfashionable; so this speech never stood a chance in the press.

Now, more than sixteen years later and thanks to YouTube, I am able to watch it and make my own judgement – as are you.

One of the first things to notice is that there are two versions on YouTube. The other is nearly twice as long as this one; so what’s missing in this one? Answer: most of the applause. Yes, gentle reader, Portillo – true to my exhortation in Cardinal Two of The Face & Tripod – positioned the speech brilliantly. He hit the audience’s G-Spot, and they gave him three minutes of ecstatic standing ovation. There’s also another conspicuous success staring us in the face (pun intended), and I’ll return to that in a while.

Let’s go through the speech, cherry picking in the process –

  • We don’t appear to have the beginning (nor does the other version) but as we join it he launches into an overt triad (see the relevant chapter in The Face & Tripod) which he immediately expands. This is greeted with about 9 seconds of applause. [N.B. 8 seconds is par for any mid-speech applause: 12% improvement on par is very good, particularly this early.]
  • 0:28 another triad – “war is messy, brutal and violent”
  • 0:46 an attributed quote which introduces a sustained reflection on the evils of war
  • 1:55 a lengthy triad which builds in intensity. He makes a small error here inasmuch as he gets too loud too early, thus squeezing his room for manoeuvre – it’s a widespread mistake, caused partly by eagerness outweighing technical prowess, partly by the limitations of an untrained voice and partly by the widely-held fallacy that volume is the only way to convey intensity. This error notwithstanding – and he covers it very well – he is greeted with an outstanding 19 seconds of applause.
  • 2:58 triad – Nelson, Wellington, Churchill
  • 3:25 another triad
  • 3:47 he sets the stage for quoting the SAS motto – and then delivers it.
  • 3:57 the audience goes berserk and, though he has sat down, they are on their feet and forcing him repeatedly to return to his feet to acknowledge their adulation.

I said earlier that I would return to highlighting a conspicuous success staring us in the face (pun intended). I had never seen this speech till I searched on YouTube; but I knew that if it were there I’d find it in seconds. I was right. I searched “Portillo who dares wins” and there it was. He had given the speech a FACE.

More than a decade before it was written he obeyed all three of the cardinal rules in The Face & Tripod in addition to several others of its strictures. This shows that there’s nothing particularly revolutionary about my book: it merely lays out time-tested simple but effective principles that will get anyone at least up to the competent 80% mark.

He appropriated his FACE from the SAS, but so what? JFK stole “Ask not what your country can do for you…&c” from Epictetus. I have the same attitude to this sort of plagiarism as the late, great, sainted Tom Lehrer – just remember why the good Lord made your eyes, and plagiarise.

Mostly with these speeches I prefer not to comment upon the sentiments expressed: my brief is to comment upon how well they are delivered. There’s a saying, popular in investors’ circles, that the market is never wrong. His audience was his market.

Go figure.

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2011 Party Conferences, Part 2: Miliband and Cameron. October ’11 Auracle Newsletter

In the October newsletter I did analyses of conference speeches by the leaders of UKIP and the LibDems. This month I shall to do the same for Labour and Conservative. Chronology having caused the two biggest guns to have delivered last, I knew that these would be the ones subjected to the greatest pressure.

For various reasons I had seen neither speech live; so I was looking forward to settling down with pen and pad in front of the screen. In the event I found it impossible to sit all the way through either of them.

Ed Miliband
While he was making this speech Tweets were pouring into my BlackBerry from his political friends and foes; and they were universally scathing. As usual I treated these criticisms with a pinch of salt; because as a rule others don’t look where I am looking. It wasn’t going to be as bad as they claimed. Was it?

Within minutes of my watching the YouTube posting I had dropped both pen and pad, had covered my face with my hands and was viewing the screen between clenched fingers. The ultra-schmaltzy opening, directed at his wife, was emetic not just because it was ultra-schmaltzy but because there was nothing against which to balance it. Schmaltz can work only with a counter-weight of something very tough or the audience is left (as in this case) with just a sickly puddle of emotional soup. The worst of the schmaltz gave way to some humour on the subject of his nose-job. A bit of human-interest Nice-to-Know material (see the Chapter in The Face & Tripod) is quite a good idea, and the punch-line was quite funny so I began to hope that when he cut to the chase things would look up.

I don’t want to get bogged down in the political angle – that is not the brief I set myself – but it is supremely lame and a waste of everyone’s time, merely to catalogue what you see as shortcomings in the administration without recommending how to put them right. Imagine a member of your team delivering a presentation to you and doing that. This, even more than the opening schmaltz, was what put my hands over my face. This also was what eventually caused me to stab the ‘off’ button: I couldn’t take any more.

The last quality we should seek in a political leader is film-star attractiveness. Yes I know that the electorate, led by the media, too easily treats elections as a pantomime audition (and accordingly Britain was run for around a decade by Buttons – followed by Baron Hard-up) but to counter this tendency it makes it all the more important for political speeches to be of the highest standard. This wasn’t.  Miliband looks and sounds a little weird, so he needs to deliver strong arguments with transparent passion. He tried, but failed. He also needs basic platform savvy to stop himself repeatedly hitting the microphone with his gestures. If any of you had delivered this speech in the more testing environment of a business setting the audience would have sent you packing. I turned to Cameron, hoping for better.

David Cameron in four parts – Part 1,  Part 2,  Part 3,  Part 4

I remember when Press pre-releases were embargoed. This speech, whether by accident or design, road-tested itself by pre-release. The Today programme buzzed with how the PM was going to tell us all to pay off our credit cards. Comments were passed by usual-suspect Radio 4 punditry; and the 6 o’clock news that evening informed us that that bit had been dropped. Were it so easy for the rest of us!  It isn’t, hence Cardinal 2 in The Face & Tripod.

He began with a very strong opening sentence, uncompromising to a fault. My hopes soared. He followed with an anaphora repetition – “ I’m proud of my…” with the last of the series delivered straight down the lens of the camera, “… and I’m proud of you.” My hopes sank. That wasn’t schmaltzy: that was oily. He paused for applause, and the audience – no doubt as stunned as I – failed to oblige. What possessed him to do something so creepy?

I have to keep reminding myself that these people have armies of consultants advising them on every eyebrow twitch. Why else would Cameron have acquired this curious thin-lipped grimace which he now affects, as if to project a ‘don’t mess with me’ image? It looks to me so phoney that I have trouble focussing instead on what he is saying; which sometimes is a pity because sometimes it is good.

But, as with Miliband, I found myself wondering whether this speech would have survived in a business environment. And the resounding answer was, no.

I recently engaged in an argument with a friend who disputed my claim that business speaking was more exacting than its political equivalent. He pointed to the myriad pressures that govern what and how politicians have to speak. He opined that where business speaking is fuelled by conviction, political speaking fakes conviction – and doing that successfully is a considerable skill. It’s a seductive case, because it assumes that all a business speaker needs is truth and sincerity. However we all know that occasions arise, in business as much as in politics, when your view of a broader picture than your audience can see will force you to aim slightly to one side of the truth. And your audience is invariably harder-nosed, more cynical and less easily duped than most of the millions of voters on the other side of the politician’s TV camera. If you find yourself having to fake sincerity, you’d better be a damn sight better at it than those guys above! In my training I try to avoid dispensing phoney cosmetic veneers, not because I am a starry-eyed optimist but because I’m a steely-eyed pessimist concerning the chances of pulling it off with the audiences of the niche in which I work. (It is perfectly possible to be genuinely sincere, aiming to one side of the truth, but that’s a long story.)

If you can bear to watch some of the footage of those two lamentable speeches, look hard when the camera gives you close-up shots of party grandees. How often do you see from them a genuine laugh, a truly thoughtful nod or applause that is more than dutiful? Very seldom. But when you do, that is when the speaker has swayed an audience as unforgiving as your average business audience.

2011 Party Conferences, Part 1: Farage & Clegg. October ’11 Auracle Newsletter

September customarily sees the political parties holding their conferences; and the chattering classes get wildly exercised over the trading of insults and the peddling of policies.  I on the other hand have a reason to look at the speeches through different eyes; and I thought I’d share some analysis with you.  I had intended today to trawl through four leaders’ speeches – Farage, Clegg, Miliband and Cameron – but then realised how long that would make the newsletter.  I have therefore taken pity on you, and will look this month only at Farage and Clegg, saving Miliband and Cameron for November.
In recent years leaders have taken to topping and tailing the conferences: delivering a businesslike keynote at the beginning and then a high-profile closing speech (the latter tending to be judged on the basis of the length of its standing ovation).  You might think that fairness dictates that I should compare like with like, but I am not treating this as a competition: I just want to analyse the most technically interesting speech from each.
 
Taken chronologically, this was the first of the four.  He chooses to buck the trend by making his opening keynote speech the main course, using the closing speech as a “go-out-and-tell-the-world” rallying cry lasting less than six minutes.  Therefore I shall address the keynote.
Even this, at less than eighteen minutes, is an admirably concise offering.  He declines to monkey around to soften up the audience as I have seen him do in previous years. Instead he goes straight for the jugular. He conforms to the first cardinal rule in The Face & Tripod, jumps into the driving seat, and certainly has something to say. The wealth of passion and energy that he pours into his pronouncements is what you’d usually expect from a grass-roots firebrand rather than a polished parliamentarian. Many might find this regrettable, hankering after the smooth manners and scrupulous courtesy that you find from, for instance, Daniel Hannan; and unquestionably Farage’s bull-in-a-china-shop manner is a gift to the mainstream media, from the BBC upwards, who seek to paint him as a loony extremist. But look closely and you realise that he is far from merely a bluster merchant.
On a technical level he has learnt the claptrap technique of marrying heavy-duty triads with corresponding hand gestures – and it works every time.  Not one opportunity for a round of applause goes AWOL.  He juggles all those esoteric rhetorical devices like epistrophe and anaphora and even paralipsis.  He embodies my favourite quote from W.B.Yeats: “Think like a wise man but express yourself like the common people”.  This is one smart cookie!
One reservation: though he never begs laughs, he does have a tiresome habit of signalling his humour by making a weird face.
I search in vain for weasel words.  What you see is what you get: look at the unequivocal policy statement at 08:25.  Yes, I know that the lower your chances of getting elected the easier it is to be frank, but still…
The speech needs a Face, but in every other respect I come away from it admiring the skill of the speaker.
  
Nick Clegg – Liberal Democrat – 21/9/11    
[This was originally posted on YouTube in three parts.  Since then some copyright issue has caused Part 3 to be blocked in the UK.  However the remaining two parts are quite long enough!}
Part 1   Part 2   Part 3 – for those who might be able to view it and have the patience to do so.
Clegg’s closing speech from the Lib-Dem conference totals nearly three quarters of an hour.  He starts with two or three long pauses – a tried and tested technique for setting a measured pace, slowing down your own pulse and getting on top of your nerves.  Having done that he turns his attention immediately to getting his audience on his side by indulging in a schmaltzy tribute to them.  It’s easy to be cynical about that; but he and his parliamentary colleagues have been under the cosh from their own side, and he is conforming to the second cardinal in The Face & Tripod: having analysed his audience he is stroking their egos.  The stroking concludes with a simple “Thank you” followed by a nano-pause for applause which never comes, so he skilfully leaps straight back in to hide the silence.  He has a more emphatic claptrap just around the corner, drives harder for it, brings in some rather more positive gestures – and gets the applause.  [N.B. the word, “claptrap” has for centuries meant a rhetorical device for getting an audience to applaud whereas today it also tends to mean “rubbish”. I use it in the traditional sense.]
Applause is a powerful drug, and this dose seems to put fire in Clegg’s belly.  At 03:05 he employs a clever use of political Left and Right, describing how the two wings view his party in their respective ways – the implication being that the Lib-Dems are slap in the middle.  Just after the 4-minute mark he throws up a possible Face for the speech, “Not doing the easy thing, but doing the right thing” and as the speech goes on he reinforces it.  The whole thing seems to be going pretty well, but – 
Weasel Words Alert!  Suddenly he wheels out some words and phrases that sound good and noble till you look more closely.
 
  • “People before Politics”.  If there’s a conflict, what does that say about your politics?
  • “Nation before Party”.  Similarly, if you imply a conflict, what does that say about your party?
  • “Populism.”  This is a favoured buzzword in political circles.  It is a stealth device to express contempt for the electorate, and get away with it.
(I have been asked about my attitude to weasel words as a rhetorical device.  It can best be summarised by the eleventh commandment: Thou shalt not be found out.)  He speaks of the party having to move from, “the easy promises of opposition to the invidious choices of government”.  It seems mature of him to admit that there have previously been easy promises.
So much for the first of the three parts; and already I’ve used up a lot of space.  But the second section can be quickly characterised as a catalogue (albeit sometimes passionately listed) of facts and figures.  Notice how he keeps naming names through all of them, and look at my Chapter on Proper Nouns in The Face & Tripod.
 
The third section seems to take a leaf from Farage’s book.  He gets worked up and passionate; and anyone who has done a course with me knows how I commend that as a device (so long as you keep it under control).  The rhetoric gets rather hollow – a bit along the lines of declaring that everyone should be made happier, without really engaging with the tiresome detail of explaining how – but my brief is with the quality of the speech and not the validity of the message.  This passion is centred on his explaining why he’s in politics, and as such it has the weakness of self-justification, of pleading.  It would have been stronger had he invited his audience to reflect on why they were in politics, and then invited them to share in his vision.  
I would have cut at least twenty minutes from that speech. I don’t care where: it just needed to be shorter. Aside from that, and subject to my comments above, I felt he did a pretty good job. He is saddled with an image of being young and effete: bright but immature: driven but naive. Given all of that, and given the position in which he finds himself, with his party’s support haemorrhaging since the formation of the coalition, he had a very difficult brief. In the main I felt he distinguished himself a lot better than some of the familiar faces in his audience would have done.

William Hague FCO speech. Talking head.

From Auraclenewsletter, Sept 2011

Last week on Twitter, on the blogosphere and in the British national press I suddenly saw many glowing reports of a speech made by Her Britannic Majesty’s Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs, the Rt Hon Mr William Hague. At the weekend when I had some spare time I rushed to YouTube to watch it. I am a great admirer of Hague as a speaker.

As a piece of public speaking it was at best indifferent. And coming from a speaker as good as Hague it was disastrous. My disappointment was so profound that I rushed to dig out anew the glowing reports to see what it was that they liked about it. It took me about a minute to spot the key fact that all these reports had been written before the speech had been delivered. All of them were working from a pre-released transcript. They hadn’t seen the speech: they had merely read what he was planning to say.

It is more than 28 minutes long, and I felt duty bound to subject myself to all of it – but you don’t need to. It quickly becomes clear that he is merely a talking head for an essay written mainly by functionaries, then polished, sanitized and sterilised by mandarins (with a few crumbs of his own thrown in).

Being Hague, he enunciates excellently and really looks the part. In fact in technical terms his only delivery flaw is that here and there he goes a little too fast; but I interpret that as his displaying the same sort of tedium that I was feeling. Essentially it is a beautiful shell around echoing hollowness. Yes there is plenty of substance to the content, including a shocking story about the FCO’s library, built over centuries, having been dispersed by the previous administration; but it is all couched in terms better suited to a written report. And it was the written version that had attracted so much praise in the press.

I also sought out the transcript and read it to see how the delivery could have been improved. I was reminded of an occasion that I helped the chairman of a large company prepare the delivery of his speech at his AGM. When I read the script that had been written for him it was obvious that batteries of highly paid professionals had sweated over every syllable and nuance to make it bullet- and litigation-proof. That being the case, not a letter could be changed. I had to spend several intense hours with him to wrest from the unforgiving text all the personality that it had been hell-bent on concealing.

It is no secret that the nearest I get to performing on a stage these days is doing poetry readings; and I urge Master-class trainees likewise to read poetry aloud in order to hone the skills we explore in the Master-class  When I watch a speech like Hague’s I am reminded that those who rise to stratospherically elevated positions become so vulnerable that their pronouncements have to be sterile to be safe – and that almost inevitably means scripted. Perhaps it is time for me to market a wholly-dedicated Reading Aloud course. William Hague is a brilliant speaker, but his reading isn’t so hot.

As to this speech, it miserably failed the memorability test that I describe in the third Cardinal in The Face & Tripod. It had no Face. The FCO had given it a formal title and they came up with “The best diplomatic service in the world: strengthening the Foreign Office as an institution” – wake up at the back! It also breached the second Cardinal, inasmuch as there is absolutely no indication or clue as to the identity or the nature of his audience. Perhaps it was the world in general.

I’ve a feeling that Official Wisdom dictates that statesmanlike equals bland. When you consider the unbridled feeding frenzy that greets anything that the media decides to term a ‘gaffe’ you can see how that definition gained credence.