Daniel Hannan: brilliant when audible.

In May ACRE held a conference in Miami to launch Conservatives International. One of the speakers was Dan Hannan. On learning this my immediate instinct was to move on: I’ve critiqued him far too often. But when I investigated further I found that it was more than eighteen months since last we covered a speech by him, so I at least owed myself a chance to look.

I am very glad I did. Just the still image advertising the video quickened my pulse. No lectern, no slides, no aids of any sort. We see just him on a stage, which is how I set the scene for my trainees because it forces them to confront all their challenges.

Clever opening. He outflanks his theme by appearing to talk nonsense, thus drawing us in. By the time he explains his reasoning we are already with him, and well primed for his childhood reminiscences which are chosen to be starkly relevant.

He comes across as very relaxed, but why shouldn’t he? He’s preaching to the choir, of which I admit I am one, and there are only two hundred of them in the hall. Still his body language conveys an inner confidence that certainly would not be there with many speakers.

He hasn’t yet eradicated the diction flaw of sacrificing syllables for the sake of a perceived dramatic effect. I’ll present just one example from a very large field: at 3:52 that word is “developing”, but we know only from the sense. The final syllable is inaudible. My mind flies back half a century to 1967 and the wonderful Kate Fleming, then voice coach at the National Theatre. Had she had a recording device to prove it, I would have been more easily persuaded that I was doing then what Hannan is doing now. It is possible, with guidance, to develop habits that retain dramatic effect and also all syllables, words, phrases; and he needs to do so, because meanwhile too much of what he says is partially lost.

I get this picky only with speakers who are very good, and they don’t come much better than Hannan. This is a beautifully crafted speech, with brilliantly coherent arguments. He goes down the obvious route of explaining the economic and ethical points that make free trade the most beneficial system for humanity. That was to be expected. He also takes us through the obstacles that can make it so difficult to sell; and that is for me the most enlightening part.

He explains the political, economic and psychological barriers that drive people away from the free market system that has elevated society (particularly the poor) so much over the past two centuries into the welcoming but coercive arms of socialism that has failed at every attempt, always results in immiseration, and was responsible for one hundred million deaths in the twentieth century.

It is a brilliant speech.

Hannan was selected by Aldershot, a constituency in the south east of England, to be their Conservative candidate at the recent General Election. The selection was blocked, I understand, by Conservative Central Office. We can only guess at their reasons, just as we can only guess at how the Conservative Party squandered a seemingly invulnerable poll lead.

Peter Tatchell: disappointingly insipid

The Oxford Union recently held a debate on the motion, This House Believes A University Should Be A Safe Space. Among the speakers for the opposition was Peter Tatchell.

I have not previously covered a speech by him, which comes as a surprise considering that he is not known for hiding his light under bushels. I was eager to amend the omission.

According to his opening, this is his thirtieth Oxford Union debate in three and a half decades. Then why isn’t he better?

Don’t misunderstand me: I’m not trying to score cheap points. I admit that I am uneasy with many of his political views, but I defer to none in my admiration for the personal courage and principled perseverance that he has shown in the campaigns I have seem him fight over the decades. I genuinely expected this to be a forceful, and forcefully argued, speech.

But it isn’t: compared to what I expected it’s insipid, repetitious, flabby. The insipidness is in the way he is almost speaking down to his audience as if it had been drawn from a primary school. The repetitiousness is just that: he goes over and over virtually the same ground. And it’s flabby because he spends almost as much time apologising for perfectly sensible views as he does expressing them.

In the early minutes he is transfixed by the paper at his right elbow. It seems not to be a script so much as a comfort blanket; but why on earth should someone of his experience need a comfort blanket? What on earth is the matter with him?

He has spent more hours than you or I would care to count being grilled by the toughest the media has to offer, giving it back with interest. I guess I had expected him to light a fire under this gathering, and yet we get a bit of moist rag. Why?

Could it be that his communication skill is in the two-way traffic of hitting back at hard questioning, and he’s never got around to learning how to construct his own one-way traffic? No, it can’t be! Not if he’s been debating at the Oxford Union on average nearly once a year since the early eighties. I don’t understand it.

Was I simply expecting too much from someone like him? This performance would just about suffice for many speakers. I suppose.

It is a puzzlement.

Mind you: his side won the debate.

Beppe Grillo: a master at work.

Beppe Grillo is something of a political phenomenon in Italy. Wikipedia describes him thus, while his blog has a different approach.

I thought it might be fun to see him in action. I found a speech/performance that he made nearly twenty years ago in 1998. This is more than ten years before he formally entered politics, but we can see where he is going.

I am fairly often asked about the advisability of going out into the aisles of a hall to get in amongst the audience. I don’t advise against it, but it has to be well stage-managed in order to work. Your first hurdle is practical technology: are there blind spots where your radio mic will drop out? – if you walk in front of a speaker will you get howl-round? – can you with reasonable dignity get off the platform into the body of the hall? – and so on.

Your next hurdle is you: does your message lend itself to being delivered while you are eyeballing members of the audience up close? – do you have the right sort of personality to pull it off? – can you keep moving enough to avoid sections of the audience spending most of the time looking at your back? – and so on.

If checklists like that come back with the right answers, then go for it! It is certainly very good for one of my chief mantras, namely that the audience should feel you are speaking with, as distinct from at, them.

Grillo here is fantastic! This is a masterclass on what can be done. Everything from his constant movement, changing from creeping to running to bounding, his endless variation of vocal tone, now whispering now bellowing, the daringness of the language for 1998 – I’m assuming that the subtitles are faithful – everything is brilliantly performed. You only have to see the faces on his audience to know that he is winning all the way.

Added to that, he has his stage-management issues licked. No one has to look at his distant back because there’s always a huge screen with him in close-up.

You would need to be very skilled, very brave, or downright foolhardy, to try to emulate his style. A FTSE 250 chairman delivering an AGM keynote like this could die very painfully; but that’s not the point. It is by watching a master at work that we get inspiration and ideas, and then we fashion them into something we can reach and handle.

I’m not surprised he has such a following in Italy.


Charles Moore is prescient

On 3 October, 2016, the Bruges Group held a fringe meeting at the Conservative Party Conference. One of their speakers was Charles Moore.

“A funny thing happened to me on the way to the theatre…” It’s one of the oldest openings in the book, but as sound as a poun… er … well, it’s sound anyway.

Hard Brexit, soft Brexit, clean Brexit, continental Brexit, full English Brexit: it’s got to be divorce, as the man said.

We are eavesdropping on a meeting, the video camera is incidental and marginal. Thus we are getting less than perfect sound quality, and also a sideways view of the speaker. I actually prefer this for my purposes, because I get a warts-and-all view of what is going on. You may find Moore’s left hand distracting, gesturing as it does between his face and the camera, but I like the way he manifestly is not playing to the camera but applying his focus to his audience in the room. I also like the way those gestures are spontaneous, natural and unconscious.

Moore is clearly familiar and comfortable with the speaking platform. He hasn’t saddled himself with a bloody script, because he knows and trusts his capacity to find the right words spontaneously at any moment during the speech’s journey. All of this I like.

What makes me wince is that he is holding a route-map for that journey. He has an index card with, no doubt, bullet points to guide him on his way.

Why does that bother me? I cannot deny that this is a widespread practice among those who who are good enough to spurn scripts. His periodic consultations of that card do not hamper the pace or rhythm of his speech at all. So what’s my problem?

He is the fountainhead of the information, the views, and arguments he is imparting. If even he can’t remember what he has planned to tell us, what chance that we will¬†remember what he told us?

When working with trainees, I introduce them to structures that are designed to make such notes redundant because the route-map is absurdly easy to memorise. And they work even for hour-long, data-stuffed, keynote speeches to annual conferences. This is not just for their benefit but also for their audiences. Clarity of the route makes the speech not just easy to deliver but also to digest.

Watch the speech, and then see how much of the information, views, and arguments you can subsequently remember. Spooling back any of the video is not allowed for this exercise, because the audience in the room couldn’t do that. However much you can’t remember is how much this speech failed in its purpose.

Moore is good, but he could very easily be better.

So much for his skill as a speaker. Here’s a bouquet to his skill in prescience. This speech was delivered eight months ago. Watch from 19:35, and then consider positions on migration recently adopted by Poland and Hungary in defiance of Brussels. With such a strong grasp of future events, I might suggest that Moore should publish an almanac.

But only if I were feeling particularly childish.