Michael Sheen performs

On 1 March – St David’s Day – a crowd of people, estimated by the South Wales Argus as being 300 strong, marched to Bedwellty Park in Tredegar, South Wales. Tredegar was the birthplace of Aneurin Bevan, the founder of the British National Health Service (NHS), and this was a political rally on behalf of the NHS.

In Bedwellty Park the crowd was addressed by actor Michael Sheen, who was born in Newport about 20 miles away; and for several days afterwards his speech was heralded on social media as having been brilliant. On YouTube I have found two videos of it.  This one was filmed by a camera quite close to Sheen, but it is merely an excerpt. The one I have decided to use was taken from further away, but we have the complete performance.

Sheen begins by thanking the gathering for having turned out in the cold and rain, and then, “In 1945 Aneurin Bevan said…

WE HAVE BEEN THE DREAMERS …

He proceeds to bellow this quotation with all the power, projection and poetic rhythm that characterizes Welsh actors. Richard Burton would have been proud.

He is reading, but as this is a quotation I have no problem with that. My problem is that when he finishes the quotation he continues to read.

This is not a speech but a reading of stuff he wrote earlier, interspersed with stuff Aneurin Bevan said and wrote seventy years ago. He speaks for nearly eleven minutes, with his notebook between him and his audience. That notebook represents a screen that shields us from his sincerity. I do not accuse him of being not sincere: I am sure he means what he reads, but the pre-written words are going in through his eyes and out through his mouth instead of coming spontaneously from his heart. That is the difference between speaking at an audience or speaking with them.

It is a performance. It is a good performance because Sheen is a good actor, but it is a performance.

There’s some good stuff in it because Bevan belonged to a generation of politicians who were not cowed by the malevolent madness of political correctness into spouting the pitiful, mealy-mouthed pap we nearly always get today from their successors. In fact Bevan today could have been arrested for a literal ‘hate’ sentence in there (listen and you’ll hear the actual word used). You don’t have to agree with the sentiments to be refreshed by the openness with which they are expressed.

Yesterday evening on British TV were broadcast interviews of the leaders of the two largest British parliamentary parties. I had neither the stomach nor patience to watch, but listened to music while entertaining myself with a stream of Twitter comments about it. Never once was I tempted to switch on. Those parties describe themselves not as being ‘left’ or ‘right’ but ‘centre left’ or ‘centre right’. They are desperate to be seen to be occupying the centre ground. As Bevan said, and as Sheen read,  “We know what happens to people who stay in the middle of the road – they get run down.”

At the moment in Britain there is only one political party that bravely tries to speak the truth as it sees it, and the Establishment hates it for that reason. Interestingly it is difficult to judge whether it is of the right or left as it takes its messages from both old Labour and old Conservative. It will be interesting to see how it fares in the coming General Election.

Back to Michael Sheen. There are extended passages where he is reading quotations from Bevan. This is appropriate as the spirit of Bevan is the star of the show, and it is also appropriate to read quotations. But when it is supposed to be Sheen himself speaking the book must come down and Sheen must speak with his audience – shooting from the hip. It is an easy skill to learn – I could teach him in less time than it took me to write this article.

Then this would be a speech – perhaps a brilliant one.

EU debate does pro-lobby no favours.

At the Cadogan Hall in London exactly two years ago on 20 March, 2013, Intelligence Squared staged a debate with the motion Both Britain and the EU would be Happier if they got Divorced. The Chairman was Nik Gowing and his opening statement measured the hall audience at nearly a thousand people..

Speaking for the proposition were Daniel Hannan and Nigel Farage, and for the opposition were Katinka Barysch and the late Leon Brittan.

I have gone on record on this blog as declaring myself anti-EU, but wanting a referendum principally because of the accompanying debate. Pro-EU arguments seem either emaciated or disingenuous, and I hunger for some that might give me pause. Perhaps this debate will oblige.

I am often asked, by those who will be taking part in adversarial events such as these, what their ‘off camera’ demeanour should be. Should they, for instance, illustrate with their facial expressions that the current speaker is lying through his teeth? My unwavering advice is that they should keep their powder dry, remaining impassive unless they are speaking. It weakens the image to do anything else. During Gowing’s introduction to the debate, and his naming of the speakers, all remain expressionless except Barysch who switches on a semi-profile friendly smile. She’s already working, but I doubt that it is working.

I assume that the opening addresses are restricted to five minutes each. For one thing this is usual practice, and for another the length of them in the event varies from 4:15 to 4:50. This is impressively professional and disciplined. I am hoping this discipline will prevail in the debate itself. Events like these get cheapened by accusations of untruth or cheap tricks like interruptions that artificially extend themselves to cut into the opponents’ speaking time. Actually, an Intelligence Squared audience should be savvy enough to make such stunts counter-productive.

Hannan [2:44 – 7:34] goes first. He rises to his feet as his introduction begins, arriving at the lectern as the introduction ends. This sort of apparently inconsequential detail has a positive influence on audiences, if only subliminally.

I have featured Hannan often on this blog, commending the skill that he has evidently toiled to polish. I am a little concerned that he is perhaps too polished, that super-fluency might be sterilizing his performance. I would like to see more of the real warts-and-all person showing through. His habit – I have heard this often – of punctuating his speeches with “my friends” is a little old-fashioned and bordering on the prim. Yes I am picking nits off nits, but when a speaker is this good I have little else to pick. If I were advising him I would urge him now to stop striving for perfection, relax a little and allow more warmth of human imperfection to show through – at least with most audiences.

He has a very classy closing! It’s one thing to manipulate the final lines of the poem, Ulysses, weaving your peroration with Tennyson’s, but the impudence of his introducing it via reference to a James Bond film causes me to smile and tip my rhetor’s hat.

Barysch [8:15 – 12:53] opens for the opposition. She likewise walks to the lectern during her introduction: we’re watching pro speakers here!

We saw her studied smile earlier, and now we hear the studied dulcet cadences of her voice. She seems happy to leave much of the nitty and gritty to the others. Her role is to paint the EU loving and understanding, a little wayward possibly on occasion but essentially benign. The EU, she cooingly implies, is a great big fluffy bunny rabbit.

Stressing that she is an economist and therefore concerned with data as well as fluffy bunny rabbits she goes down the “why would Britain want to close her doors to the rest of the world?” route. I wonder how heavily her opponents will tread on that canard, and whether the audience of ‘almost a thousand’ will buy it anyway. In terms of pure speaking technique she is very good. In terms of her reading of this audience I am not so sure

Farage [13:36 – 18:16] likewise walks through his introduction, and opens with “Good evening everybody!” For non-UK readers unfamiliar with the current political climate in Britain, perhaps I should make it clear that Farage is a very sharp thorn in the hide of the British political establishment. The mainstream media and the education system being part of that establishment, he is routinely painted as being the devil in human form. I have yet to read that he eats babies for breakfast, but give it time. The interesting thing is that people who meet and speak with him seem always to like him. Funny that! I have never met him.

I am interested to see what he does with some of Barysch’s assertions. The Japanese have a word, Mokusatsu. It means “To treat with silent contempt”. Farage practises Mokusatsu, trusting in the audience’s wisdom. Instead he concentrates on the duplicity of the EU having been miss-sold on the basis of being merely a market, then steam-rollering its way to a political monolith with the enthusiastic collaboration of the political class but in defiance of just about every poll or national referendum. The inference is that half a billion European people don’t want it, but a few hundred politicians don’t care.

Just after 16:25 he comes out with a statement that could be held to be highly inflammatory, but which gets a small laugh from the audience. This is merely an appetizer to prime a punchline that harvests a huge laugh. He reads the audience very well.

Brittan [19:02 – 23:17], uniquely in this company, stays seated through his introduction. To be fair his chair is nearest to the lectern. Uniquely in this company he has a script, though he handles it skilfully.

He opens with the claim that leaving the EU we could no longer trade with countries within it.

Though we are a net buyer in our trade with other EU countries, apparently European manufacturers are so rich that they would no longer want to take our money for their goods. I remember Ben Gummer MP coming out with that one on Twitter, and being greeted with a deluge of derision. On my visits to Switzerland and Norway – both non-EU countries – I was sure I saw plenty of Mercedes, BMWs, VWs and Audis, but obviously I was mistaken.

Next he accuses his opponents of lying.

Next he declares it an “absolutely howler” that European Commissioners make the laws. I wonder how strictly Hannan and Farage will practise their Mokusatsu when next they speak.

The four opening addresses being completed, Nik Gowing explains that a poll was taken of audience members when they arrived. He reads out the results which show that pro-EU sentiment prevailed substantially, and goes on to tell us that another poll will be conducted at the end.

There follow some questions and answers which involve lots of Mokusatsu. There is a diverting episode in which Brittan accuses Hannan of misrepresenting something he had said. Hannan’s trademark courtesy is clearly stretched and, though he maintains the niceties, his widened eyes betray his anger. That anger, like all stress, robs Hannan of some of his ability to think on his feet. He has a crushing answer easily available – “the audience were listening: let them decide” but doesn’t use it. Brittan is anyway only doing it to cut into Hannan’s speaking time.

There is a lesson here for all debates including adversarial broadcast interviews. It is easy to lapse into the mistaken sense that your goal is to sway your opponent or interviewer. That is of course nonsense: they couldn’t matter less. It is only the audience that matters.

Barring that momentary lapse from Hannan, he and Farage were infinitely better with the audience than their opponents. You do not need to take my word for that. The final poll showed a huge swing in their favour. They wiped the floor.

Did I glean any new, thought-provoking pro-EU arguments? Nope, they were pathetic.

Vicky Ford paints herself phony

I always stress to my public speaking trainees the importance of first impressions.

Yes I know the concept is hardly apocalyptic; yet today we examine a speaker who should have known better, but destroyed her first impression with an elementary error.

In order to make my point I’d like you to consider the following short list of hypothetical first meetings –

  • Your beloved teenage child has brought the latest amour to your house to meet you.
  • An interviewee for a job has just sat down in the chair opposite.
  • Upon answering your front door bell you are confronted by a canvassing politician.

Suppose the other party opens the conversation with a compliment on your house/office/garden. That would seem a reasonable way to begin but suppose, before doing so, he or she pulls a sheaf of paper from a pocket, carefully unfolds it and then reads from it, “Golly, what a nice house/office/garden you have!” How much do you suppose that paper, and the reading from it, will take the shine off the compliment? The point I am clumsily trying to make, in case you haven’t spotted it, is that there are some things that just have to be seen to be uttered spontaneously, and an opening congratulatory compliment is one of the foremost.

Vicky Ford was the fourth speaker in a debate at the Cambridge Union in November 2014. The motion was This House Believes UKIP has been Good for British Politics and we have already examined the previous speeches from Patrick O’FlynnRupert Myers and Peter Bone. Vicky Ford begins at 51:21.

She opens with thanks to Mr President, appending a short impenetrable joke concerning Movember. Then her eyes descend to her script in order that she might read out, “It’s great to see the Chamber so full.”

I find it difficult to conceive of an opening more demonstrably phony – not the words, but the obvious reading of them. She warbles on for ten more minutes, but as I can no longer find a reason to believe a word I can’t be bothered with it.

To be fair, the audience seems to lap it all up, so good luck to her, but what really bothers me is why? WHY do audiences put up with speakers who couldn’t be bothered to learn to speak spontaneously?

If you ask people about those they regard as brilliant speakers they nearly always bring up the ability to speak without referring to notes, as if this was somehow magical. The skill is so easily taught that it should correctly be regarded as an elementary sine qua non. Audiences should not be impressed by speakers who do, but be prepared to boo off the platform any speakers who don’t. The trouble is that they have been lulled into accepting mediocrity.

I am not idly boasting when I say the skill is easily taught. Six senior executives from a household-name British company were last week the latest in several hundred trainees who after a single day with me were effortlessly shooting their speeches from the hip. Though I told them that speaking without paper says all the right things about the speaker in terms of sincerity, command of the subject, etc, I should have added that it follows that speaking with paper paints you phony.