Tim Minchin: better said than read

In September 2013 the University of Western Australia  awarded Tim Minchin an honorary Doctorate of Letters. In acceptance, he proceeded to deliver this address.

Within a few seconds of his starting, no regular visitor to this blog will be in any doubt as to what I am going to say, so let’s get it over with.

What possessed him to castrate his speech by reading it from a script?

If he and I were sitting across a table and I put that to him I know what he would say – I’ve had it said to me countless times. The script of that speech had to be dragged out of him syllable by syllable, and then pruned, polished and perfected by repeated rewriting. That, he would claim, is what makes it so brilliant. My reply, as always, is that it may be brilliant as a piece of writing, and I’d enjoy reading it to myself, but as a speech it falls pitifully short of its potential. It sounds stilted.

He would reply by citing all sorts of fine details that would have been lost had he not had them to hand on the page; and at that point I would clam up. I always do. I have learnt over the years that there is no point in arguing any of this with anyone unless they have put themselves in my hands in a training room, in which case I tear the paper away from them and go through a careful process of proving to them that they can easily do what they have always regarded as some sort of magic given only to a select few. More importantly I show them how much better the resultant product suddenly becomes.

What about those fine details of which he is so fond and proud? Would he lose them if shooting from the hip? Yes, some of them, but only those whose presence makes the speech stilted.

I have a friend who is a very good speaker indeed, and shoots from the hip. Last year I was present when he delivered an address to a big audience upon receiving an important promotion. Nearly all of it was shot from the hip and was excellent. The first couple of minutes, though, were scripted, unmistakeably aimed at the two or three in the audience still superior to him (I call it ‘playing to the purple’), dripping with affected erudition, and consequently nothing like as good as the rest. And here’s the clincher: I bet those superiors would agree with me.

Back to this speech by Minchin. I invite you to join me in a little experiment. There follows a quote from the speech – a joke. What I ask you to do is read it once (or at the most, twice), remove your eyes from it, and then tell the joke to the nearest wall. Don’t try to reproduce it verbatim, just tell the joke. Not only will you not need the script to tell it, but you will tell it better than he did. He is talking about the meaning of life.

Searching for meaning is like searching for a rhyme scheme in a cookbook. You won’t find it, and it’ll bugger up your soufflé

He is a professional comedian. He wrote the joke: it is a good joke: he read the joke: he killed the joke. He read it because he believed – really believed – he needed to. He is wrong, but he will go on believing it till someone like me puts him right and simultaneously improves his delivery tenfold.

Happiness is like an orgasm. If you think about it too much it goes away.

Can you believe that he read that too? Yep, I’m afraid he did.

It is a very funny speech indeed. It would have been better and funnier if he had known how to leave the script at home and trusted himself, not to memorise and recite it (Heaven forbid!), but deliver it said rather than read.


Lindsay Johns and the Rhetauracle question

I was enjoying this Telegraph blog posting by Toby Young when I read his nomination for the best Party Conference Speech of the year. His consuming interest, and indeed personal involvement, in the Free School movement made it not difficult to foresee where this was leading; but my [ditto] in public speaking meant that I felt compelled to go and have a look. The speaker in question is Lindsay Johns.

Immediately it becomes evident that this will be a talking head performance. He is reading from a script; and the script is in written, rather than spoken, English. Any regular follower of this blog knows that this is an abomination to me, but rather than rake over a well-worn theme I’ll attempt to avert my eyes from that and instead look at other details of this essay that he reads aloud.

He kicks off by dangling a hanging thread. Hanging threads can be a nice device if used subtly and skilfully. He presents a riddle and promises to give us the answer later. This isn’t subtle, it is contrived and ham-fisted; and it looks at this stage to be too convoluted to work.

Cut to near the end, and when he reclaims the thread I am afraid that it kills itself by being even more convoluted. What a pity!

At 1:35 he begins a section that could be seen as sailing perilously close to the sort of didactic nonsense for which I castigated Stephen Fry a few weeks ago, albeit he is pointing in the opposite direction. This would be just as imbecilic but for one crucial detail: he is speaking specifically about education. If education is not about setting standards it is nothing.

3:49 Ouch! This is my turn to get didactic, but we are dealing here with clarity of communication. The word ‘perennial’ has four syllables, not two. My booklet, Every Word Heard explains.

Johns has a very important message and in the main I agree with it, though that is not what we are discussing here. My concern is that while he was sweating over this script to create correctly parsed (though over-adjectived) sentences he was simultaneously sterilising some of the passion and therefore intelligibility out of his message. At 10:25 he says, “…floundering, as we are, under the Sisyphean burden of political correctness…” Well, yes we are, and that is a reasonable thing to read; but it sounds stilted and pretentious when we hear it spoken.

Elsewhere passion manages to assert itself over literary pretension, and we get a sentence at 14:14, “How dare you put off my bright kids from applying [to Oxford or Cambridge] by saying they wouldn’t be welcome there!” That comes across with far more power because now we are into spoken, rather than written, English.

Look what has happened here! Willy-Nilly I find myself back to what I attempted to avoid: complaining about talking-headism. But then, with a very few highly skilled exceptions, people who read their speeches destroy their effectiveness on the platform. When will they ever learn?

Actually, that is not a rhetorical question, because there is an answer. The answer is, “when they contact me“. You might call it a Rhetauracle question.

President Obama talks the talk

On 10 December, 2013, politicians past and present gathered to join thousands of South Africans in the FNB Stadium in Soweto, South Africa, for a service in memory of Nelson Mandela. Many speeches were delivered, not all praised by the British media. I was too busy to see any of it at the time, but the most frequent criticism I subsequently read and heard was that some politicians had (ab)used the high profile occasion to deliver self-serving political messages. The exception, according to the BBC, was President Obama; but then, to the BBC, POTUS can do no wrong. Let’s see what we think.

Obama has a power-pose which comes from the angle of his head. He tips it up a little. I assume it to to be a pose, though it may come naturally from habit. Is he accustomed to having to look up? Is he short in stature? I have no personal knowledge of this because he hasn’t met me, but it has always struck me as a pose. As poses go, if you must pose, it’s quite a good pose.

Why is he shouting? With that battery of microphones, and speakers all over the stadium, he could be heard if he whispered. I know there’s a great amount of crowd noise, but if that noise drowned his whisper it would also drown his shout. Also, if you want your audience to be quieter the secret is not to speak louder but softer. That will make them go quiet. He knows that: he knows the power of quiet intensity. He briefly used it at 08:40 in this speech. He knows he doesn’t need to shout to be heardTherefore I repeat the question: why is he shouting?

There is a simple answer: he does not want the audience quieter. He wants that noise! Please do not misinterpret my pointing this out, but another very effective and skilled speaker used the same technique at Nuremberg rallies in the 1930s. I draw no parallels between the men; I merely observe that using a noisy audience as part of your stage management is not a new technique. It wasn’t new in the 1930s: Shakespeare had Mark Anthony doing it in Julius Caesar.

The British media complained of politicians using this stage to promote themselves. What did they expect of politicians? Obama is a politician: he did it too. He may have done it covertly, more subtly, … perhaps better (I haven’t seen the others yet) but he did it. This speech is littered with weasel implications, claiming co-ownership of Mandela’s personality, principles, and policy. He is careful to be ‘umble about it, but from his repeated use of Mandela’s Xhosa name, Madiba, to introducing the grievance card with a spurious comparison of the race struggles in their two countries he’s playing the world’s adoring media for all he’s worth.

Obama’s strongest words are not his but Mandela’s, quoted from his speech to the court at his trial in June 1964…

I have fought against white domination, and I have fought against black domination. I’ve cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and equal opportunity. It is an ideal which I hope to live for and to achieve; but if needs be it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.

These are wonderful words; and it is to Obama’s credit that he quoted them. The whole speech could so easily have been wonderful if stripped of its self-serving opportunism. The peroration which he launches at 18:04 with the words, “Let us search for his strength” is magnificent. As a speaker he is so talented! What a pity he leaves me with a taste made sour by his having uttered, with a straight face, the following…

There are too many leaders who claim solidarity with Madiba’s struggle for freedom, but do not tolerate dissent from their own people.

Quite so.

Nelson Mandela – never, never, and never again…

On 10 May, 1994, Nelson Mandela delivered his inaugural speech. Were I an historian I would wax lyrical about the man. Others will assail us with such pronouncements for probably weeks to come. Not I. As but a humble rhetor allow me merely to examine this particular speech and his delivery of it.

For some time I have been sitting, as it were, upon the speech he delivered to ecstatic crowds upon his release from prison in 1990. If you wish you can view that here. The problem with it is that his first audible word arrives eventually at 5:36, preceded by tumultuous cheering, whistling, applause, and “You’ll never walk alone”. His inaugural address was a much more sober affair.

My first observation is that the monumental significance of the occasion, to a very marked degree, got to him. Furthermore he evidently knew that it would – though not a particularly powerful crystal ball would have told anyone that. The speech had been very, very carefully prepared and crafted.

And written down.

“Oh come on, Brian,” I hear you shout in exasperation. “On an occasion such as this you surely won’t begrudge him a script!” No, of course I don’t begrudge him it, but he would have been better without.

I have absolutely no doubt whatever that the speech was written from his heart, but it was spoken from his eyes. And that is, and will always be, the trouble with a scripted speech. Had he known how to structure and prepare even a hugely important speech for an historic occasion like this for delivering without the hindrance of paper, and then trusted himself to shoot it from the hip, he would have spoken it from the heart and that would have made it immeasurably better.

We need not have lost that beautiful symploce beginning at 8:03 – “Let there be … for all”. We certainly would not have needed to have lost that wonderful Face of the speech at 8:30, “Never, never, and never again shall it be …”  Yes, it was wonderful; but watch and you will see he even looked back at the paper for each of the succeeding occasions that he uttered the word, Never”. Did he need to consult his script each time for that word? No, of course not. But that does demonstrate how, when you permit it to control your speech, paper becomes a demanding tyrant. And like all tyrannies it impoverishes what it rules.

Nelson Mandela 18 July, 1918 – 5 December, 2013.


Hans Rosling: a wizz with visuals

TED boasts 1500+ talks. That represents a serious amount of time that someone like me can spend, looking for examples that have particular interest for this blog. The trainee that suggested that I should look at Hans Rosling therefore did me an enormous favour. Merely for interest and entertainment the man is great value; but today I want to examine something that he does with particular skill. Rosling is a master at the development, use and application of visuals.

When I go through the routine of embedding a video here, I never know in advance what still picture will be used to illustrate it. You may think that the above picture was a happy chance, in view of what I said would be my theme for this posting, but you could pause this video almost anywhere and have a picture of Rosling in some galvanic pose with a visual.

His talk is on the impact of religion on birth rate, and he has some quite surprising revelations that I shall not spoil: this talk is worth watching for its own sake.

Before I home in on his use of visuals, I’d also like to draw your attention to his excellent use of a hanging thread at 2:04. In fact he begins spinning this thread at around 1:30. Hanging threads are very useful when you are torn between wanting to say something early in a speech, but don’t want to pre-empt a kindred point that you are planning to cover later. By telling the audience that you will return to this you not only solve the problem but you also hook them into paying more attention so as not to miss it. This latter quality is often covered in how-to books, with the regrettable result that too many speakers dangle too many arbitrary and meaningless threads. It’s a powerful device when used sparingly and judiciously, but badly used it can be tedious as hell. Rosling applies the principle beautifully.

The joy of Rosling’s visuals is in the synergy that he achieves between his voice and his pictures. They are never a distraction from what he is saying, nor does his voice prevent you from absorbing exactly what you need from the pictures.

At 2:40 he begins weaving a fascinating demonstration. At the beginning he is merely showing you a map of the world, indicating religious distribution, but this is in order that you might understand the iconography that will follow. A minute later there appears a graph, a chart. He spends yet another minute taking you through and explaining the chart, and we see how comprehensively he has made the chart interactive; but the real magic is yet to come. At 4:45 the chart starts moving to indicate the passage of time, and what it shows is extraordinary.

At 5:20 the audience breaks out in spontaneous applause. What are they clapping? What he has discovered? No, it is the way he has demonstrated it. The applause is well-deserved: that chart is a wizz! Together with his commentary it makes its point with complete clarity.

We are merely halfway through the talk and what is still to come is as fascinating as what has passed.  He plays more with the interactivity of his chart, and he plays with those boxes that you can see in the picture above. He also picks up the hanging thread.

And he plays with something else! He has a pointer. Not a laser pointer, but a great long pole with a bobble on the end. The juxtaposition of his high-tech graphics and this low-tech pointer makes for very appealing theatre. This is a clever guy who has thought everything through with considerable care. I can see myself wasting lots of time watching his talks.