Michael Sandel owns his audience.

My godson, a psychologist and himself a university lecturer, posted on Facebook a link to this TED talk by Michael Sandel; so I had to go and look.  A Harvard professor should be comfortable on the speaking platform; and a political philosopher should fulfil Cardinal 1 – have something to say.

Though we don’t see his introduction, so cannot guarantee to catch the very beginning of his talk, we do see someone (presumably his introducer) exiting downstage right. My eagerness to see the very beginning of any talk is because of my keenness on what I call the bald opening – going straight in without lame preambles.  I think he has a bald opening. He also has adopted one of my favoured default hand-strategies – one hand in pocket, the other gesturing.   He is comfortable with it: I know because the pocket hand, of its own subconscious volition, emerges in seconds .This is promising well.

As a university professor he should be comfortable on his feet in front of an audience, but still there are tiny symptoms of hump if you look for them.  So let’s not.  His hump-busting tactic is to have this opening well-prepared. He gives us a Contents Page by setting his agenda. At 0.25 he says, “We need to rediscover the lost art of democratic debate”. There’s the Face!  Has he read my book?  This is straight down the middle of the fairway of my orthodoxy.  There’s a pleasing anaphora sequence at 0.50, using the word ‘over’ as the repetition key. To round off his agenda-setting he announces a discussion on the validity of applying Aristotelian principles to the issues at stake. At precisely the 2-minute point he seems to have shrugged off the hump, has set the scene and is well set.

Lovely clear structure – I’m enjoying myself! So will you. It’s excellent.

Having announced a discussion, he is as good as his word. Almost immediately he is working his audience. He calls for opinions, discusses opinions, stages differences of opinions between members of the audience, generates laughter, gets people thinking. He owns that audience right up to his closing; and the reasons are simple.

I’d like to refer you to two things. In my book I discuss the importance of using a judicious mixture of Need-to-Know and Nice-to-Know; and I give various reasons that I will spare you here. In my critique a few days ago of Matt Ridley’s TED talk, I discussed the value of causing the audience to apply their own critical faculties to issues being covered. The way Sandel structures this discussion fulfils all of that. While audience members are throwing up opinions in a relatively light-hearted fashion the diet cannot get too rich. Therefore they are very receptive when Sandel then piles in with something quite meaty. Furthermore, while he is inviting their opinions they get drawn deeper into the issues at hand; and that means their increased attention.

Suppose you are addressing department heads in your company on the importance of their getting their new fiscal year’s budgetary requirements submitted on time (I have deliberately recalled a scenario with which a Finance Director once challenged me on the basis that it was impossible to make such a talk interesting). I suggest you could use Sandel’s template quite effectively in that situation.

By the way, did you spot asyndeton three paragraphs ago?  Check the glossary if you don’t know what the hell I’m on about.  The third sentence in that paragraph is a list of items with never a conjunction. It makes the list cleaner somehow.

Tim Smit looks the right way.

Tim Smit or, to give him his full title, Sir Timothy Bartel Smit KBE is the man behind the Lost Gardens of Heligan and the Eden Project in Cornwall. I first heard him speak when he presented the prizes at Moreton Hall School. My sons had been there. I directed the school’s annual play for more than twenty years, and Tim’s son starred in one of them. Having witnessed two decades of prize-giving speeches of varying quality by a succession of peers, prelates and parliamentarians, I tell you confidently that Smit easily eclipsed them all. Therefore when a reader of my Auracle newsletter sent me a link to a speech he had done for Do Lectures I eagerly clicked myself to it.

My main reason for featuring him here is because he epitomises the doctrine that I repeat often in The Face & Tripod, and that I bang on about on courses. He is looking “the other way”.

He couldn’t care less about himself and how he looks (the way he dresses is also evidence of that). He is concerned only with his audience, and the manner of getting his message across to them; and this makes him compulsive watching. Anyone can be made to speak with the same aplomb if they only will abandon themselves to the same degree. And nearly all those on courses with me come very close to that before the end of one session.  While watching this speech, just as I did when watching that prize-giving speech, I find myself ticking off all the mistakes he’s not making.

And of course he is shooting from the hip.

This is for me a rare speech critique inasmuch as I have no complaint about sound quality, which is excellent. But you may be expecting me to castigate him (or someone) for the dark areas into which he disappears, for instance at 2:52. It’s true that the lighting of that stage is a little stripy, with over-bright areas giving him a dazzle-frown and then apparently stygian patches elsewhere; but note the word “apparently”. We, through the camera lens, are eavesdropping on a live talk. The lighting was set for the live talk. The camera is exaggerating the contrast of light, by squeezing down its iris against the bright spots. The human eye would be more forgiving. Look what happens when we cut to another camera at stage left (2:58): you’ll see he’s not actually speaking in pitch darkness.

But there is a more significant factor to all this. Look how he seems to seek out those dark spots, staying in them once he finds them. To us watching the video, it seems at first to be perverse. Doesn’t he want to be seen? Why does he appear to cling to those dark areas? The answer is very simple, and returns us straight to two paragraphs above. He likes those areas because there, in the absence of dazzle, he can focus more easily on his audience. Therefore I warm to this habit of his: it is symptomatic of exactly the right speaking mind-set.

In The Face & Tripod I discuss the rights and wrongs in using humour, and explain at length the value of the early throw-away. Smit has a beautiful example at 0:28 – “all called Nigel”. He gets everything right with this: right timing, right wording, right rhythm, and thrown away during the first minute of the speech.

Other than that I’d rather not say too much about this speech, other than exhorting you to relax, enjoy and watch it all.

There are more examples of him here and here. Essentially they are very much the same speech: at least they use the same modules. In my latest Auracle Newsletter – emailed last week – I discussed all three speeches and how best you can use this form of modular construction. I may in the New Year adapt that for this blog.

Knowing words like symploce doesn’t make you a better speaker

My text for today…

DOOLITTLE: I’ll tell you, Governor, if you’ll only let me get a word in. I’m willing to tell you. I’m wanting to tell you. I’m waiting to tell you.

HIGGINS: Pickering, this chap has a certain natural gift of rhetoric. Observe the rhythm of his native wood-notes wild. “I’m willing to tell you: I’m wanting to tell you: I’m waiting to tell you.” Sentimental rhetoric! That’s the Welsh strain in him. It also accounts for his mendacity and dishonesty.

Fairly often in this blog there occur words which, it must be admitted, probably stop the eyes of most readers momentarily. At that point a reader that doesn’t know the word may click the Glossary button on the grey ribbon at the head of the page or impatiently go and read something else. I made the decision to use these words here, even at the risk of driving people away, not to flaunt my knowledge of them but to save space. If I had to explain what anadiplosis was whenever it cropped up in a speech I would be adding a paragraph every time. The same is true of all other such.

Most would agree that I, doing what I do, need to know these words. A regular reader of this blog will also find it helpful to know them, and will learn them quickly – there are not that many.  But you don’t need to know them to be a better speaker.

Consider that bit of dialogue at the head of today’s article. It comes from Pygmalion by G.B.Shaw – and therefore also crops up in My Fair Lady. Henry Higgins styles himself Professor and is a scholar and published author of books on linguistics and phonetics. Col Pickering is likewise an author of a book about Sanskrit. If ever two men could be expected to know words like those we are discussing, here they are. Why then did Shaw not put into Higgins’ mouth any reference to symploce? A quick look at the Glossary page will confirm that symploce refers to a form of repetition wherein both the beginnings and endings of the elements are the same. This is perhaps the neatest and most elegant example of it I’ve ever found –

  • I’m willing to tell you
  • I’m wanting to tell you
  • I’m waiting to tell you

But Shaw is silent on the matter; and the only reason I can conceive is that he did not know it was called Symploce.  Why should he?  Shaw was one of the foremost writers of his age, and churned out beauties like that in profusion, but so what?  He didn’t need to have learnt their obscure names to create the things. So why should you?

I fervently favour spontaneity in speaking, because audiences do. The way to find yourself spontaneously uttering beautiful and elegant phrases is to immerse yourself in fine literature and/or poetry where such figures of speech abound.

It obviously worked for Bernard Shaw!

The real Stephen Fry is impressive.

YouTube is knee-deep in debates in which the late Christopher Hitchens attacked religion in all its guises.  Today I want to look at one such, and specifically the offering from his co-speaker against the motion “The Catholic Church is a force for good in the world”. His co-speaker was Stephen Fry.

It is only fitting that I declare in advance that I am probably the only person in the world who enjoys QI, the TV programme, despite Stephen Fry. I used to enjoy his performing in tandem with Hugh Laurie, but I find his current professional performing persona frankly irritating and irksome. He does at least now fiddle with those damned QI cards less than in the early days. (No, I am not going to say what irritates me: perhaps another time.)

My coming at it from that direction makes it, I  think, particularly telling when I say that I was deeply impressed with this speech. The principal reason is that he has allowed that performing mask to be stripped away.  You may think that an obvious requirement under the circumstances, but I could name many who might not have done.  Let’s watch it: his introduction begins at 21:10 and he starts talking at 21:28.

It appears to be a bald opening, but the speed with which the volume of applause falls off a cliff makes me wonder whether there was an edit-point there. I hope it was a bald opening, without preamble, just as with Matt Ridley a couple of days ago.

In The Face & Tripod I commend what I call “outflanking the subject”.  There is a time and place for that, but this is neither. Not only is it appropriate for him to begin with a direct statement: the manner of its delivery instantly reveals the absence of his performing mask. The hallmark of sincerity is conspicuously displayed. The statement is pursued by a courteous caveat concerning his not attacking anyone’s personal spiritual convictions. He’s doing really well.

For the first minute or two he seems to be on a carefully choreographed path (this is a sound hump-busting tactic). For instance there’s an elegant anadiplosis at 22:12. But shortly after that, when he gets onto the subject of the church having attacked The Enlightenment, his own, personal, inner fervour takes over. This is not to say that it turns into a rant: it remains disciplined. There is neither script nor notes: he has mind-mapped this speech on his own structure. Therefore he can, and does, shoot from the hip in total security. He is trusting himself to use the spontaneous words that come to him at the time. It also means that he can get a little worked up without risking falling foul of one of my favourite quotes, from Ambrose Bierce – Speak when you are angry, and you will make the best speech you will ever regret.

I can only guess at the nature of his mind-map, but there are several indications that his structure operates on a modular basis.  There is, for instance, a clear module that runs from 26:52 till 27:28 – the Roman Catholic Church is obsessed with sex.  He enjoys arguing that module, as does his audience.  And it is instantly followed by another module that turns out to be his closing one.  It starts with arguing that the humble Galilean carpenter’s son would not have approved of all that ecclesiastic wealth and ends with how he – Stephen Fry – might respect the church more if it used the wealth in ways that he approved.

I absolutely do not intend here to enter the arguments that he champions. In this blog I seek out logical fallacies only when they are used as rhetorical devices. There is no question but that Fry fervently feels his message; and in that respect he is the embodiment of my Cardinal 1.

I really enjoyed watching the real man.



Compering – Who’s the Daddy!

I was helping a past trainee with preparing a presentation to be delivered to a conference he is hosting early in the New Year. During our deliberations I remarked on how the conference timetable showed that his Marketing Director would be the conference MC, and I offered guidance on what that would involve.

I was asked only a few weeks ago by a firm of Conference Organisers whether I preferred that term or the word ‘Compere’, and I replied that they were different functions. Their functions are quite well described by their titles.

An MC (Master of Ceremonies) is a cross between a toastmaster and a town-crier – a very visible figure. It is someone whose job it is to bring proceedings to order at appropriate moments. My client (above) has very properly appointed a high-profile personality from the company to manage this function. The nature of the job means (though it goes against the grain to admit it) that what they say could be pre-scripted. It’s relatively easy.

A compere – as anyone with a smattering of French will see in the word – should act as a sort of father. Daddy will look after everything. He (or she – I tend not to waste time smoothing over gender specifics, but with a word like ‘Daddy’ in the frame let’s be clear that women make very good comperes) should be a relatively unobtrusive figure that simply makes everything go smoothly, relaxes the audience, relaxes the speakers and is always ready to grab the wheel and steady the ship should anything go wrong – an omnipresent safe pair of hands. The nature of this job forbids scripting.

I recommend to anyone who aspires to develop himself as a speaker that he should seize every opportunity to act as compere. The skills that are needed, and therefore honed, are plentiful and invaluable.

You are the ‘Humpmaster’. When the event begins everyone in the place is nursing his own hump. All the speakers/performers are edgy; the audience has yet to settle; it is your job to bust all those humps at once. What’s that you say? You have a hump too? Tough! You just have to ignore it, and pretend to the whole world it isn’t there. You’ll be amazed at how this improves your nerve-hiding.

You are the ‘Bridge-builder’. Have you heard or read me going on about the importance of breaking down invisible screens and building a bridge between the platform and the audience? Now you have to build a communal bridge for the whole event. Get good at that, and you’ll never again have problems on your own account.

You are everyone’s support, backstop and trouble-shooter. If you are doing your job properly you never relax: you are constantly looking ahead for possible problems and working out contingency measures. Do I have to lay out how valuable that habit is?

You are the timetable elastic. In between events you have effortlessly to motor-mouth for longer or shorter periods to cater for whatever changeover measures have to take place. The key here is to be armed with stacks of snippets of nice-to-know, inconsequential information that you can wheel out or not as required. Yes: homework!

As far as the audience is concerned you don’t matter. You are never the picture, barely the frame. All that matters is the event as a whole and the next item in it. This is actually quite liberating: you can witter away in a casual fashion, knowing that no one really cares. And that is exactly the right attitude for you to adopt. Surely you’ve spotted the developmental advantage. You are never thinking of yourself: your focus is constantly looking the other way. If you don’t know what I’m going on about here, read my book.

And all without a script. Shooting from the hip.

The better you do it, the easier it looks to everyone else. The greatest compliment they can pay you is to forget to thank you. That means the event proceeded as if on silken rails. I seriously consider the absence of a thank-you as a badge of honour, to such an extent that I itch at the end simply to slide way unnoticed.

This isn’t some phoney Lone Ranger pose – “Who was that masked man?” It’s the Jeeves effect, shimmering in and out.

As you might imagine, all this applies as much to compering a local talent show as a huge international corporate shindig; so get out there and get compering. Do it often, do it well, and progressively great swathes of previous difficulties you experienced on the speaking platform will vanish away.

And, since you ask, yes!  I’m compering Carol concerts, both in stately homes, tomorrow and Tuesday. Why do you think it was prominently in mind to make me think of writing about it?

[added 19/12/12]    P.S. Both those carol concerts have been and gone. I am proud to say that at neither was I publicly thanked.  RESULT!

Matt Ridley – optimism justified

Matt Ridley is the author of many books, perhaps the most famous of which is The Rational Optimist. Indeed, he has even used that name for his website. He is hugely in demand as a speaker. This month I’d like to take a look at a speech he delivered in Oxford in July 2010. It was a TED Talk.

First thing first: we appear to have a ‘bald’ opening. If you are not familiar with my use of the expression, I mean that he goes straight in without any preamble e.g. “Ladies & Gentlemen”. I like bald openings: they convey confidence and eagerness to get on with delivering the message. They also are very good for the speaker’s nerves (I’ll spare you the reasons here). I say that “we appear” to have a bald opening, because we do not see his actual start. Therefore I went looking for other Ridley speeches and indeed found that he habitually starts without preamble.

What’s the second thing I notice? I think that everyone who has ever done a course with me will remember how together we found a personal ‘happy home’ for their hands. This is intended to be their hands’ default position that they are satisfied both looks good and feels comfortable. All this also features in The Face & Tripod. They will also recall that I warned against holding hands too low, because it looks nervous. Ridley begins with his hands clasped low down. I – or someone – needs to go through that ‘happy home’ process with him. He is not happy with his hands low: he would be much happier clasping his hands high enough for his forearms to be horizontal. How do I know? That’s where his subconscious sent them – and where they largely stayed – from around 1:30 onwards.

And at that point an interesting thing happened. My notes petered out. And the second time I watched the speech my notes were pretty scant also. And the third time. It took a lot of watching and a degree of self-discipline before I got any notes of substance about the main body of this speech at all. And that in itself is a lesson. The purpose of a speech, or any sort of presentation, is to put across a message – just as the purpose of any sort of stage performance is to tell a story. I’m often telling actors that if a member of the audience is sitting and admiring the quality of your performance, you’ve failed him because he isn’t swept up in the story. The equivalent is true of making a speech. You can dress the process up in any fancy way you like, but you still come back to that fundamental purpose – putting across a message. Ridley was repeatedly sweeping me up and carrying me along with a message that so absorbed me that my pen remained frozen over my notepad.

What an important lesson that is! The amount of interest ignited by your message trumps everything else. I tend to boast that when it comes to speeches I don’t miss anything; yet I did. Repeatedly!

But let us see what I did eventually discover. How, for instance, was he grabbing and holding my attention? I’m not altogether sure, and you may disagree, but here’s my take.

For one thing he seems to recruit his audience’s assistance, by inviting us to join with him in addressing questions. Even though he’s dripping with degrees and doctorates in the subject matter he offers, rather than decrees, answers – e.g. at 4:05, “I think the answer is exchange.” He’s treating us as grown-ups by plying us with data and then suggesting a solution that seems to make sense to him. He doesn’t invite anyone to stand up and argue: he doesn’t ask for a show of hands. Yet there seems to be this tacit implication that we are somehow a part of the thought process. That’s damn clever! We find ourselves concentrating just a little harder on the data, almost as if we are going to be invited for our opinion. Can you and I find a way of harnessing that principle? Take another look at my previous paragraph.

All right, so I tricked you! By feigning uncertainty I persuaded you to look a little harder for yourself. It’s a tried and tested device, both on the speaking platform and on the theatre stage. If you want the audience to get more absorbed in what they are hearing, spoon-feed them a little less and persuade their brains to work a little harder. Instead of my merely explaining it, I decided to stage a little demonstration of the principle. That said, I wasn’t kidding you when I said a few paragraphs back that he completely absorbed me in his message. He did.

So… back to the speech.

There’s a glorious moment when he beautifully fulfils a favourite quotation from W.B.Yeats, “Think like a wise man but express yourself like the common people”. He says, at 10:30, “ I’m not dissing the Neanderthals”. His live audience appreciates that too.

There are also some wonderful sit-up-and-blink statements – e.g. at 11:20, “Trade is ten times as old as farming.”  Yes, isn’t that a show-stopper!

I said earlier, “The amount of interest ignited by your message trumps everything else.” If Shakespeare could mix metaphors with “to take arms against a sea of troubles” I can; but let’s examine what else igniting that much interest can do. It very effectively hides one thing, and it astonishes me that I did not spot it immediately. He seems to be riddled with nerves! His hump never seems to end. I mentioned the way he is holding his hands rather low for the first minute: at 11:50 he has a period when his hands again are at a loss for a short while. There are periods when he is speaking almost aggressively quickly, falling over occasional words and not allowing natural pauses their full life – a nerve symptom (although his enunciation is so good that he’s always crystal clear) . He gets slightly breathless on occasions – another nerve symptom. There are more such, but I’ll spare you the full catalogue.

I’ve never met him, and it could be that this sort of constant outpouring of nervous energy is his natural style. Also it comes across as overwhelming enthusiasm for his message, which is attractive and may be another instrument in sweeping up his audience. It’s just that when I see a speaker apparently in slight distress I itch to help.

At any rate Matt Ridley is very good. His website claims that this speech has been viewed more than 1.4 million times, and I’m not in the least surprised. I’ve just downloaded the kindle edition of The Rational Optimist for my Christmas reading.

2012 Political Party Conferences

Last year I devoted two Auracle newsletters to analysing speeches from all four main party leaders. This year I restrict myself to brief summaries.

I can summarise them communally.  Much better all round than last year. I have to add a rider with an observation I have made before, namely that people in my niche – business executives – could not get away with spouting some of those toe-curling banalities. “I believe we should leave the world a better place than we found it.” Can you imagine the tumbleweed moment that would greet that if one of my trainees dared utter it? One of the party leaders did; and it was greeted with applause. Today I have firmly put their content beyond my brief.

I will address them chronologically.

Nigel Farage consistently fulfils Cardinal 1: he always has strong, clear messages. He was more matter-of-fact and less bellicose than he can be, and thus conveyed an air of increased maturity. Also he has learnt to avoid pulling silly faces to signal that he has a joke brewing. He remained dead-pan while describing van Rompuy as his good friend, and was rewarded with a bigger and better laugh.

Nick Clegg was incomparably better than his defensive, insipid and fractious offering to the March conference at The Sage.  From a good robust opening that culminated in 12-second applause at 2:32, on through a well-placed anaphora at 3:38, this was a very good speech.  He had notes, but he barely looked: he shot this speech from the hip.  No doubt the backdrop of party faithful (also present for Miliband) is something that focus groups and consultants have insisted upon; but not only do I dislike the practice, I feel sorry for the individuals concerned. Constantly on camera they have to sit still and look interested.  Imagine how many votes a yawn could cost!  I would like to work on Clegg’s diction.  It seems to be clear, but too much goes AWOL.

Ed Miliband presented a delivery that was light-years improved on last year. Someone (not I) has tried to get him into the ‘note-free conversational sincerity’ style that I preach. If you rammed me against a wall, demanding a guess, I’d hazard that a stand-up comic has been working with him. A monumental non sequitur in the first minute signalled to me that he was not as relaxed as he was trying to convey. Also sometimes this casual style looked a little as if it had been painted on by numbers as opposed to coming from within; but a huge amount of progress has been achieved. He included a pretty epistrophe, beginning at 17:00, but I shall not comment further on his material.

David Cameron drove me nuts last year with a dreadful trick of periodically delivering what was fondly believed to be a killer sentence straight to camera. It was excruciatingly smarmy. Clearly someone else thought so too, because this year that gimmick had been euthanized. We know he can speak without notes: he did it when campaigning for the party leadership. Why then was he using Autocue here? I think the answer probably has to do with shortage of time, the pressure of office, and large amounts of data. Though the delivery was less sexy than Miliband’s, it was more secure. He is evidently seeking to portray statesmanship while avoiding the epideictic nonsense that we found in All Gore a few posts ago.

I have to admit to a sneaking admiration for those that work on these speeches. It’s too easy for me to criticise from the wings. They have to thread their way through a horrendous minefield of competing criteria. If ever I were called in on a job like that, I would try very hard to restrict my terms of reference to diction and demeanour in delivery, and abdicate any responsibility for the rubbish they were called upon to utter. And that is why I shall very probably never be called.