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.

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