Michael Ball: an actor speaks

The Oxford Union not only hosts debates but invites celebrities of all descriptions to come and speak.  Earlier this year Michael Ball was their guest.

I have yet to meet an actor that didn’t regard him or herself as a consummate public speaker and, truth to tell, good actors can deliver anything you give them; but a speech involves more than skilled delivery. It has to be created first, and that is where actors usually fall down. Michael Ball is a good actor: let us see how he fared here.

He is reading.

You don’t even have to watch to know. Look away and listen. You can hear the words go in through his eyes and out through his mouth, being processed en route for the purpose of performance but not being thought about. The thinking process took place when the words were written: it is not happening now. If you doubt me, listen at 1:33 when he misreads and – before he corrects himself – exactly reverses the meaning of a sentence. If he had been thinking about what he was saying he could not have made that mistake. It’s a good script, some of it is funny, but even when he is being serious and apparently speaking from the heart, he is actually speaking only from the script.

The script is a screen between him and his audience. His performance skill is considerable, but it doesn’t completely penetrate that screen.

Watch this and understand why my trainees all speak without notes. They don’t have to be as good as this at performing: they just need to be themselves.

Ball is nervous, and his nerves continue much longer than they need – again because he is using a script. That script/screen being in the way means he is never completely speaking with his audience, never completely engaging with them. It’s a performance, albeit a skillful one; but even a professional communicator will relax more quickly and thoroughly once he engages with his audience.

And there’s something else.

In Beyond the Fringe there was a legendary piano sketch by Dudley Moore in which he played a parody of a Beethoven Sonata. Apart from the comedy brilliance of his applying Beethovenesque variations to the theme of Colonel Bogey, there is the added joke that he cannot find an ending. For a minute and a half he goes round and round trying to get out of this thing. Michael Ball’s speech reminded me of that. In increasing despair I lost count of the number of times he could and should have just STOPPED.

For about five minutes he goes in circles past obvious exit doors but doggedly continuing to speak. It’s a classic error, and is just another reminder that with public speaking being good at delivering material is simply not enough.

Anthony Watts – a tale of two paces.

On 12 June, 2015, at the Tenth International Conference on Climate Change in Washington D.C. the Award for Excellence in Climate Science Communication was presented to Anthony Watts.

I need tell you nothing more about this because the award presentation was eloquently preceded by a speech from Tom Harris, Heartland Institute’s Executive Director, International Climate Science Coalition.

Harris has a very relaxed, user-friendly style of speaking. Yes he uses a script, but he piles bags of his own personality into the delivery. If he’d been a trainee of mine he wouldn’t need the script, and he wouldn’t – standing at the lectern – have joined in the applause for Watts. As I’ve said before in this blog that’s one of those rare things that feels right and looks wrong, and the microphone makes it sound wrong also. I’m being picky because this is a well conceived, warm and generous tribute to Watts.

Watts comes to the stage at the 7-minute mark and collects his award. He then gives us several minutes of thanks and tributes. Aside from his also applauding from the lectern, if you have to do an extended thankfest (and sometimes you do) this is the way to do it. There’s no shallow, Oscar-style stuff, thanking the family, the dog, and the teddy bear, these are all professional peer-to-peer tributes. Only the names are on his paper. The actual tributes are shot from the hip, with the sincerity that that implies.

At 11:10 he announces a new project. For a reason that will shortly become clear I want you to note the excellently measured pace with which he shoots this section from the hip.

At this conference he also delivered a talk.

He begins by announcing that there is a shortage of time, and then sets off like a rocket. Allow me to quote myself from a recent blog article

Speaking too quickly to save time is essentially futile. Let us look at the mechanics of it. The actual words are not articulated significantly faster: the speed is in the closing of the gaps between words, in particular the natural pauses between phrases and sentences. I reckon everyone who has ever edited speech-audio has tried to save time by closing these gaps, and we’ve all done it only once because we’ve learnt the painful lesson. It doesn’t work! It’s a mug’s game: you slave for hours trimming these things, turn around and find that you’ve saved just a few lousy seconds.

Never speak too fast in an attempt to save time: take out a sentence or two instead. Otherwise your words and sentences can tumble over each other faster than the listener can absorb them.

To save time Watts should have removed something. That would have been a hellishly difficult thing to do because this stuff is so important; but the importance of the information is why he should have trimmed something out. He is addressing an expert audience, so they’ll follow it because they probably already know it; but most of the value of this talk is in educating the world via publishing the video on line. The speed of his talking will turn people away, and squander a valuable opportunity to educate more of the world.

Anthony Watts at the beginning of this posting received an award for communication. Quite right: his online contribution is matchless. In accepting the award he showed how well he can communicate with a live audience. And now he clearly shows how much his communication skill can be damaged by the apparently small mistake of having too much to say in too little time.

An important lesson for us all.

Jeremy Corbyn – refreshing sincerity

Most of my readers are not in the UK, so perhaps this posting requires some background information.

The UK media are currently working themselves into a lather concerning the candidates for election to be the next leader of the Labour Party. This position will carry with it the title of Leader of The Opposition. The erstwhile incumbent, Ed Miliband, resigned after Labour was (unexpectedly to the pollsters) thrashed by the Conservative Party at the General Election in May. The Labour leadership election is not till 10 September, but what is exercising the chatterati now is that the pollsters – yes, the same ones that had the result of the General Election spattering egg all over their faces – have a firebrand left-winger, Jeremy Corbyn MP, in the lead. (If you are a regular reader of this blog, and that name seems faintly familiar, it could be because we fairly recently critiqued a speech by his brother Piers.)

The received psephological wisdom seems to be that the only way to win an election these days is to pepper your pre-poll public pronouncements with all manner of declarations that place you in the political centre-ground. Once elected you are free to junk all those promises and no one really minds any more because everyone has come to expect it. In short, all the politicians representing their countries in international corridors of power, have therefore – by definition – to be duplicitous little shits. That’s the received wisdom; and if you look around the world stage you have to admit that … well anyway that’s the received wisdom.

Jeremy Corbyn makes absolutely no attempt to occupy the centre ground or pretend that he is anything other than an extreme left-wing firebrand, and therefore – so the ‘experts’ have it – he is unelectable.

In November 2013 Corbyn spoke at a debate in the Oxford Union. This blog has previously covered a speech by Daniel Hannan at the same debate. The motion was This House Believes Socialism Will Not Work. Corbyn spoke in opposition.

Corbyn is a very good speaker indeed.

It’s not just the fluent, paperless confidence that makes him so good; it’s also the quality of transparent sincerity. I work very hard to get my trainees to convey those same qualities and this speech shows why. You can’t help believing that he means what he says.

He doesn’t have much chance to get into his own flow because people keep interrupting him with interjections, heckling and points of order, and in fact this causes him to over-run his time and be bombarded by the time bell. But he still manages to promote his arguments, and he combats the time-bell with the words, “I’ll conclude with this thought”.

I happen to think his opinion is profoundly misguided. I don’t want to take time here to make the distinction between corporatism and free-market capitalism, but he seems not to recognize the difference. I do not believe in equality for the same reason that I do not believe in Santa Claus. Neither exists; and trying to force equality is a doomed mistake, as Milton Friedman said –

“A society that puts equality before freedom will get neither. A society that puts freedom before equality will get a high degree of both.”

Socialism operates through coercion instead of freedom, and the experience of the consistent failure of all the worldwide socialist experiments, up to and including North Korea, show that the movement thrives on stated intent rather than being able to cite any results. I marvel that any socialist any longer genuinely believes that the stated intent has any hope of materializing. It is almost as if freedom is suppressed for its own sake – like in North Korea.

Nevertheless Corbyn manifestly believes in it, and we can listen and know that he means what he says. That is a refreshing quality these days for a politician aiming for the top of his tree. I would loathe to live in a country governed by a party led by him, but that ain’t going to happen at least for a few years.