Aaron Porter and butter

The Oxford Union has recently posted videos of a debate held with the motion – This House Believes Popular Support is Enough to Justify a Platform. I find it depressing that such a motion is even regarded as worthy of debate in a prestigious seat of learning. Unpopular support is enough to justify a platform: no support is enough to justify a platform. Stick a box at Speakers’ Corner or any appropriate place, climb on it, start speaking and you have a platform – a justified platform. If no one listens that’s your problem. If people dislike or disapprove what you say they walk away and leave you lecturing the pigeons. There’s nothing particularly sophisticated about the concept: it’s a quaint little custom called Free Speech.

At random I’ve picked a speech in this debate. Aaron Porter is speaking in opposition.

Porter speaks well. If you don’t know who he is and have not clicked the link on his name let me tell you that he used to be President of the National Union of Students in the United Kingdom. Doing a fair amount of speaking would obviously come with that territory, so you might expect him to be good – though this blog has shown that it does not necessarily follow.

Right at the beginning he gives us ethos. Without directly doing so he waves his NUS credentials at us, harvesting some applause in the process. I can’t tell you how much, because an unsubtle editing point reveals that it was cut.

He lays out his stall. His opposition is in the lack of qualification in the motion. So within seconds he reveals himself as a ‘butter’. He classifies himself one of those who believe in free speech, but… There’s a very old saying that everything before “but” is bullshit, and this is no exception. Butters do not believe in free speech. Nevertheless he is free to speak so let us listen on.

He uses butter words like “safe”, “comfortable”, “trusted”.

Speech is not free unless it can be uncomfortable and unsafe. And as for being trusted – well – trusted by whom? And how do they know till they hear it? And why should anyone give a toss what a self-regarding little boy chooses to trust?

Since he is picking at the actual wording of the motion, so shall I. He seems to assume that the provision of a platform is implicit in the motion – but he’s wrong. The wording of the motion speaks of ‘a’ platform, not this platform nor any specific platform. Of course a Society like the Oxford Union, or any private club, is entitled to foster its blinkered prejudice and willful ignorance by denying its platform to anyone they please, but that’s none of the motion’s concern. The motion’s concern is in the denying of others the opportunity to say or hear what they choose. When people arrogate the right to hold sway over someone else’s platform you have something ugly. How do they justify that arrogance? Listen further.

There is an even nastier undertone to come. He makes the distinction between a ‘learned’ gathering like this and others that are less so and therefore less equipped to cope with unsafe, uncomfortable or untrustworthy content. He has yet to grow out of the fallacy that less educated means less intelligent. (These days so much of education seems to consist of idea-sapping indoctrination that I could entertain the possibility of the reverse being the case.)

At any rate that is the basis on which every authoritarian, dictatorial regime is built. “I am cleverer and more virtuous than the plebs, so I will decide what they will hear, read, see, believe, think, do.”  It is a self-serving philosophy that is misanthropic and malevolent. It is a philosophy that invents cretinous concepts like ‘hate speech’. It is a philosophy that culminates in a gunman breaking into a conference in Copenhagen, spraying bullets around, and killing people.

It stinks.

Nevertheless I’ll defend his right to smear his stinking butter on a platform.

Stephen Fry works his socks off

Towards the end of October or possibly at the beginning of November 2014 Stephen Fry spoke at the Oxford Union. We immediately know the rough date because he is wearing a poppy, and we also later hear him commenting that Oscar Wilde’s birthday (16 October) was very recent. The video was nevertheless posted on YouTube only at the beginning of April 2015.

Fry has been featured three times previously on this blog. Twice I gave him a kicking for something stupid he had said; once I praised him effusively for a fine speech. My interest in this gig, therefore, may seem obvious, though in fact my curiosity was alerted professionally for a very particular and less obvious reason. What he was being asked to do is intensely difficult. You need only glance at the blurb beneath the video on YouTube to find a potted biography of Stephen Fry. They expected him to speak about himself. I have, more often than is good for my health, seen fine communicators die miserably attempting this and I really feared for him.

Almost everyone in the public eye has an image that is polished, flattering and wrong. It is well-known in such circles that to believe your own publicity is a fatal mistake; but while disbelieving it you have to stand in front of a high-profile audience, with cameras rolling, and promote it. You want to be sincere and speak from the heart, but to do so could be ruinous. It is a ghastly predicament.

I advise my trainees to write their own introductions for speaking gigs: the advantages for everyone are manifold. Mayank Banerjee may have composed this introduction, but I suspect otherwise. At any rate, he delivers it pretty well and gets the laugh he wanted.

Various mass audience actions, most notably applause and laughter, work like a wave. We have seen waves approaching a beach, the swell building up till the crown tips over and the wave breaks in a flurry of chaos. The expert audience-smith, in whatever guise, learns how to use that wave motion to the best advantage to time a laugh, stoke applause or whatever it might be. Bear that in mind as you watch Fry make his entrance. He avoids any sense of self-aggrandizement by playing his twee persona, and then starts calling to the applauding audience, “stop it: stop it: oh you have”. The way he times that to the wave motion of the applause is immaculate.

After a little more introductory tweeness he addresses the theme of his talk. Whatever his audience was told to expect, he does not speak about himself. Instead he sidesteps that dreaded trap by speaking about one with whom he has become closely associated – Oscar Wilde. We are told about Wilde, his early life, education, accomplishments, loves, plays, publications, and the slow-motion car crash of his fall from grace to imprisonment and bankruptcy. It is a well conceived, well structured, well delivered talk that is wholly shot from the hip. Given that Fry has played Wilde in a film, given that Wilde is clearly a hero of Fry’s, given that both of them can lay claim to being what Quentin Crisp, speaking of himself, called A Stately Homo of England, you could be forgiven for thinking that Fry had chosen a task that was for him a piece of cake that he could breeze through.

You would be wrong.

Stephen Fry is a pro and wise to a range of pitfalls. Hark back to my second paragraph and consider the baggage that he carries with respect to his public image. Some have even attached to him the imbecilic epithet ‘National Treasure’. What a burden when faced with an intelligent, well-read, cynical audience!  Most of this lot will actually not entirely meet that description but there will be enough to make life dangerous. Consider the penalty for putting a foot wrong. By ducking away from the main Pooh-trap and speaking about Wilde instead of himself he is by no means out of the woods and he knows it. So we proceed to see clever, evasive and audience-wooing devices competing against serious symptoms of stress. He works his socks off, and does it very well.

The tweeness is an evasive device, and even after his twee opening he deploys it again in the way he says, “bless you!” to an audience member who sneezes. He had that ready. With a few hundred in an audience at the turn of November you are bound to have sneezers and/or coughers, and he wheeled out a prepared twee routine to have fun with it. There are many more such devices, but as he is entitled to keep his secrets I shall mention only a couple and not be too specific. There was the joke that bombed, so he immediately threw into the cavern of aching silence a very coarse side-comment that drew a roar of embarrassed laughter and eclipsed the turkey. There was the period when the audience coughing was getting out of control and signalling encroaching boredom. He neatly turned off into a digression that got them back.

All right: one more. At 34:20 he emits a shameless paralipsis.

He really is very good, but he is also vulnerable. I am not referring to the highly-publicized bi-polarity that assails him: I mean plain speakers’ funk. Many assume that expertise banishes fear. It doesn’t: it makes you better at hiding it, but also gives you greater awareness of what can easily go wrong. Fry’s most glaring symptom is how hot he is. Early winter 2014 in England was unseasonably mild, but it was still winter. The audience is full of woolly jumpers, whereas Fry in a lightweight suit and open-necked shirt is sweating profusely. Again I will keep his secrets (and mine) but without being specific I can’t resist one obviously nerve-related moment. Stress is a devil for robbing you of much of your natural ability to think on your feet. At one point Fry is seeking the right adjective to describe someone. At any other time he would have made an excellent choice from an obvious array of candidates, but here – probably trying to avoid a cliche – he pauses, vainly gropes through his mind, and then in desperation comes out with a ridiculous word that causes me to sit bold upright and cry aloud, “What?“.

I have written a sheaf of notes on the content of this speech, but I will restrict myself to two challenges.

To claim that The Importance of Being Earnest is the only Victorian play still seriously performed is absurd. When I first was taken to it as barely a teenager, I came away declaring with adolescent arrogance that if the author similarly spoke in wall-to-wall epigrams he must have been a crashing bore. I have recently directed a production of it and was conscious that this facet makes it very difficult to play – not least because the audience’s lips are moving as they silently say those famous lines along with the cast. It’s fun, but a great play it ain’t! Of its style, Arms and the Man is better – and look what I’ve done: I’ve introduced G.B.Shaw into the argument! For Fry to overlook all those great Shavian plays was – how shall I put it? – careless.

Towards the end of this speech Fry mentions De Profundis, Wilde’s legendary letter written in prison. Fry declares it a hugely important piece of writing, and so it is. I am at a loss, though, to understand how anyone could read that, love it, understand it – as Fry obviously has and does – and still say the things he spouted in that interview with Gay Byrne, It is possible to revere something while disagreeing with it, but still. Could Fry and I, through Confirmation Bias, be reading opposing messages from the same words? It is a conundrum.

This speech is forty minutes of hagiography – studiously jocular at times, out of necessity – but hagiography nonetheless. It finishes with an unusually quiet, rather reverential, peroration. He has worked his socks off: I think he is relieved to be finished.

Oliver Robinson in speech mode

At Imperial College in London on 1 November 2014, Dr Oliver Robinson gave a talk on ‘Science and Spirituality’. He is an author, lecturing in psychology at Greenwich University. The subject matter here is for him a personal interest and sideline. I know this because I know him. He is my nephew.

You may think that our relationship would guarantee that he is a trainee of mine. Not so. He has never asked me for help in this field and I have always assumed that this was because he didn’t wish to bother me, or he felt that he was at least as good as, and probably better than, most people (which he is), or along the lines of that excellent rule – don’t try to teach your wife to drive. I was very eager to watch this talk.

He doesn’t bother with an opening beyond the standard “Tell them what you’re going to tell them”; and with only ten minutes for the talk I think he’s right. He also slips a minuscule piece of throw-away humour into the first few seconds, and correctly throws it away. This is good, though the opening goes on a little too long. Devices like that ‘hanging thread’ of the book that he will later tell us about really only work with longer speeches than this.

As a lecturer he has become expert at disguising his hump, but it’s still there (it is with everyone). The symptoms are tiny but unmistakable, and even quite late in this talk there are nerve symptoms. It is a pity that his conscientiousness is generating anxiety which in turn is throwing up a mask that hides his full personality. I call it Speech Mode, and its elimination is one of my first targets with my trainees. But let’s get to specifics concerning this talk.

He suffers from the almost universal malady of over-use of PowerPoint.

  • Slide 1 is the title of the talk – ok
  • Slide 2 is worse than redundant: if a slide bears the words that you’ve spoken or are speaking it doesn’t help. it is in direct competition with you. Lose it.
  • Slide 3  – ditto. It’s actually an extension of Slide 2.
  • Slide 4 – ditto, ditto.
  • Slide 5 is his re-seizing of that hanging thread, adding the image of the book to the rogue slide that has been extending all this while. That image is important: it should have a slide of its own and be Slide 2.
  • Slide 6 is a bookfest image. He shows four pairs of books which represent the remainder of his talk that essentially now becomes a bibliography.

With these books, all of which he commends, he shows that since the seventeenth century each of the books on science has a spiritual counterpart, and thus the two movements have progressed in parallel. It’s an interesting principle and suitably provocative in that it makes us keen to read all the books to sample the theory. I’ve a feeling we need to, because in just ten minutes Oliver is not really able to establish much, if any, linkage. Parallel, yes – but parallel lines never converge. To suggest complementarity we need convergence or linkage of some sort.

That said, his normal University work probably involves perhaps as much research guidance as actual teaching, so pointing audiences at books to read, and whetting their appetite to do so, would then be an essential skill.

But let’s get back to Oliver’s actual speaking skill. The two most important ingredients are there. He is very articulate and he has good command of the subject. A couple of things are getting in the way of his doing full justice to himself. He needs to be rid of that bloody paper. The script or notes in front of him are a constant impediment. He needs to learn how to structure a sufficiently secure mind-map that enables him safely to shoot the speech from the hip. He could do it easily. He has a shortage of fundamental inner confidence. He may tell me I’m wrong, and he certainly synthesizes confidence pretty effectively, but he is behind a speech-mode mask which is hiding much of the huge personality I know him to have. Sort out those two things and he’d fly. The natural ability is there: look at the excellence of timing that harvests from his audience a fine and deserved laugh at 10:00.

Could I make him fly? Yes, of course – easily. Would I if he asked? Yes, of course: he’s my Godson.

Thatcher’s last speech – The Mummy Returns

On 22 May 2001, at a general election rally in Plymouth, Baroness Thatcher came out of retirement long enough to take the stage for what was probably her last big speech. My speaking students will understand when I say that the speech had a Face – “The Mummy Returns“.

There is a transcript of the speech downloadable here.

Say “The two Ronnies” to most British people and they will immediately think of Messrs Barker and Corbett, whose comedy partnership is a TV legend; but to those of us involved with British Theatre in the mid-sixties there was an earlier pair of Ronnies. Ron Grainer and Ronald Millar collaborated on two West End musicals, Robert & Elizabeth, which opened in 1964 ran for nearly a thousand performances and has been revived several times since, and On the Level which opened in 1966 and died shortly afterwards. I briefly assisted Ronnie Grainer during that time: a sort of unpaid internship, sharpening pencils and making tea.

What has that riveting nugget to do with this speech?  Only that Ronnie Millar went on to become Thatcher’s speechwriter, for which he was awarded a knighthood. It was he who was credited with “The Lady’s Not for Turning”. He didn’t write this speech, he died in 1998, though I think he would have approved.

Thatcher lived in an era when formal oratory was still the norm and today’s style of conversational sincerity had yet to take hold. Everyone used to read their speeches from scripts, and delivery was relatively stiff. What is remarkable about this bit of speaking is how modern it sounds. Though she is reading it, she imbues it with much of the conversational sincerity that today we expect. Her speaking skill was ahead of its time.

I have a sneaking suspicion that she might have written this herself. Her managerial style was hands-on, so she would always have been closely involved with the preparation of her speeches; and when this came to be prepared she had time on her hands.

I’d like to think that she authored the description of New Labour at 4:37 – “rootless, empty, and artificial”. What a withering dismissal, and all in a little triad! (The trouble is that it neatly describes most of the posturing pygmies that people all parliamentary parties these days.) And what about this alliterative triad a minute later – “the bitter, brawling bully”?

There are several stumbles and losses-of-place, but this is a tendency when people read speeches – particularly if they are conscientious enough to raise their eyes regularly to their audience. That is why I liberate all my trainees from the tyranny of paper. If your memory contains a structure that is strong, simple  and clear enough you don’t lose your place and you can shoot your speech from the hip maintaining eye-contact with the audience all the time.

She is enough of a pro to massage the egos of her audience, not just for being Conservatives but for living in Plymouth. At 10:29 she begins her peroration with an extended anaphora on the word ‘Plymouth’.

She was very good at this; and it is a lesson for us, when we embrace new fashions for things like Public Speaking, to grab the best of the new but without rolling up behind us the carpet of the old.