Roger Bootle: mildly excellent

On 28 January 2015 Roger Bootle, Chairman of Capital Economics, gave a talk at the University of Leeds. The talk was one of the Financial Times Masterclass Lecture series, and entitled The Trouble with Europe.

At this stage in the history of the UK this is fascinating: a penetrating, deeply researched and authoritative analysis of the European Union. Therefore as I did with the recent post we had of a speech by Digby Jones, I think it is relevant to put the timing of this talk into context. It was –

  • a little more than 3 months before a UK General Election, whereat David Cameron promised to seek radical reform of the EU, and then hold a referendum.
  • 18 months before the Referendum,
  • a time when the Euro was under enormous pressure.

That time-context gets particularly significant and interesting from about 41:00 onwards, and increasingly more as it approaches the end.

Malcolm Sawyer, Emeritus Professor of Economics, makes the introduction; and as we join it we see two figures standing in the gloaming before the screen. We zoom in to see which of them is speaking now and which is preparing to do so.

For me this is excellent! In these videos we seldom get a chance to watch the demeanour and body-language of a speaker before taking the stage. Bootle seems relaxed, and it is the sort of relaxation that is the preserve of one in command of his subject. He is listening impassively and slightly amused to the description of himself. Why is he carrying a sheaf of paper? Surely he won’t use a script: surely he is too adept a speaker for that. His adeptness is confirmed when he removes his wristwatch in preparation for laying it on the desk. That tells me that he has spotted the absence of a clock on the wall. It may seem a small thing but it indicates professionalism, and my expectation of speaking excellence rises – but what about those papers?

It turns out to be a list of his deck of slides – we even get a glimpse of it at one point. There are many slides, mainly graphics, and where there are words they are minimal. Very good. Accordingly I forgive the paper, except at one point when it rubs against his microphone.

He opens with some mild reminiscing about his long memories of this university. I chose that adjective ‘mild’ with care, because you can tell a lot about the tenor of a speech from the first minute. Immediately we know that however thoroughly he drills into the subject he will not hector. Nor does he. His command of the subject gives him authority, and enables the mildness.

This whole talk – fifty minutes of it – is riveting, not least because here we hear while armed with nearly five years of hindsight.

At 48:45 he begins to tell us how he will vote in the referendum, depending upon circumstances in the mean time. With hindsight we know what those circumstances turned out to be, and therefore how he probably voted. But what about his opinion nearer to today? This interview is from March of this year.

Tim Scott: engaging and sincere

On 8 August 2019 the Oxford Union posted on YouTube a video of an Address and Q&A by United States Senator, Tim Scott.

I like coming across speeches by someone of whom I have never previously heard. I start with a blank slate and no preconceptions.

Good start! Having said no more than “Good Evening” he comes out from behind the lectern to stand in the centre aisle, empty handed. He’s going to shoot this from the hip. A proper speaker.

I notice that for the first few seconds he has one hand in a pocket and the other gesturing. Every speaker needs a default position for his hands, where to put them in the event he finds himself suddenly conscious of them. Pockets are one of the options, and it works for him because in seconds he has forgotten them and both hands are out gesturing freely and unselfconsciously.

His opening salvo is ethos; autobiographical and dealing with his childhood in poverty. This can easily be mawkish, cringe-inducing victimhood-claiming, but not here. He handles the subject with disinterested objectivity, not just telling us that he had no money but that he wasted a great deal of time at school, not doing any work. After seven years of drifting he was turned around by two people: his mother, who was prepared to apply tough love, and the inspiration of a mentor.

So he reaches his political career, and one of its principal thrusts for the benefit of the community – the provision of opportunity.

Scott has grasped one of the things I keep drilling into my trainees: it’s just talking. We can dress up public speaking with all manner of mystique, and certainly there are techniques we can use to embellish it, but at root it is just talking.

He stands there in that aisle and just talks. He has a simple structure which is broadly chronological, and that carries the narrative along. I would like to see the address more firmly underpinned with a clear single message, not least because it would bring that narrative into sharper focus, but still he puts himself across as an engaging and sincere fellow and that makes us want to listen and learn.

In many ways it is the Q&A that follows the address that sharpens the focus, not least because of the quality of the questioning. The young woman chairing the session is to be congratulated.

Digby Jones: punchy but gentle

In September 2013, Lord Digby Jones was guest speaker at the conference of the UK Independence Party (UKIP).

Before we watch the speech let us put that date into perspective. It was —

  • The year UKIP had a huge growth of influence, winning a great number of seats at local elections.
  • The year UK Prime Minister, David Cameron, first announced his intention to hold a EU Referendum.
  • The year before the EU Parliament election in 2014, where UKIP became the biggest UK party.
  • Two years before the 2015 UK General Election which David Cameron’s Conservative party won by twelve seats, with the promise of an EU Referendum as a central plank.
  • Three years before the referendum was held in June 2016, and the UK voted to leave the EU.
  • Six years before the latest EU Parliament election, when The Brexit Party became the biggest party in the entire parliament.
  • Six years and one month before today when the UK still has not left.

In slightly different words he describes his origins by echoing Margaret Thatcher’s immortal, “I started life with two great advantages: no money and good parents.”

My word, but he’s good!

Every aspect of his speaking is right. Humour for instance: I always say that the better it’s done the easier it looks. He makes it look a doddle. His account of being collected by a BBC car to take him to a series of interviews is breathtakingly skilful: beautifully structured, narrated, timed, and just enough histrionics to enhance rather than obscure the point of the story. Many, on the basis of this evidence, would call him a natural; but no one emerges from the womb doing that. He obviously has natural aptitude, but a lot of work has gone into being this good.

It’s not just humour. Starting at 7:35, and lasting a little more than a minute, is perhaps the clearest, most concise summary of socially-inclusive wealth creation I have ever heard. It’s punchy but gentle.

Punchy but gentle pretty much sums up his whole style. He makes his points very firmly, but we never feel barracked. I suspect that this speech consists of modules that he has used many times before, road-tested and refined. I don’t care: he delivers it as if for the first time and the result is stupendous.

At 17:00 he begins speaking about the EU, and he has a great deal to say. My timeline list above the video is there to help put into context what he says against when he said it. For instance he refers to “the EU elections next May” thereby pointing to the third item in my list.

Referring to UK’s relationship with the EU he stresses how uncertainty is the arch enemy of that business world he so clearly showed us we need. At 19:54 –

Get this sorted, one way or another, as quickly as possible

Six years and a month later they still haven’t.

Katharine Birbalsingh: especially when it’s difficult

On Thursday 31 May, 2018, Katharine Birbalsingh, the principal of Michaela Community School and the woman dubbed “the strictest teacher in the UK” had a full diary in New Zealand. Click here to see the evidence: you will find several interviews that she gave through the day. After that lot she dined with New Zealand Initiative in Auckland, and gave them a half-hour dinner lecture.

I have been unable to establish her whole itinerary in New Zealand, or even how long she was actually there; but as a UK school principal in the middle of term I rather suspect she merely grabbed, over the Whitsun break, a small handful of days into which she crammed one of the longest return journeys on the planet, itineraries like that Thursday, and diametrically opposite time-displacement.

I’m making excuses for the possibility that she was feeling a little weary, only because she won’t. In her world there are no excuses.

You see where she’s looking? She’s reading a script. I’ve seen speeches where she was shooting from the hip, and heard interviews where she was super-fluent, super-articulate, super-coherent. I was stunned to find her reading this one, went hunting for reasons, and think I found them. She’s dead on her feet, knew she was likely to be so, and therefore wrote the script for her own protection and in order not to let down her audience. She suspected that she would be barely intelligible.

Highly laudable, but wrong. She could have sat in the aeroplane, preparing this – and any other speeches she needed, in her head with her eyes closed. The result would have been every bit as secure, and her delivery demeanour would have been critically more real and natural. She just needed to have been properly taught how.

For her very well-chosen opening story, lasting 1:25 minutes, she is shooting from the hip; and yes, knowing what we now know about how she had spent that day, we can see her weariness and yes we see her having to search for the word “fix”. And then she turns to her script.

She’s a very fine communicator, so the reading is subtly done and with bags of expression. She always speaks in an extrovert fashion, and that is either her natural persona or one that she has thoroughly developed, but here it occasionally breaks out into over-the-top histrionics which are almost manic. That could be caused by her tiredness or it could be a compensation mechanism for reading, or both.

Don’t misunderstand me: this is a fine speech, very well delivered. But, even allowing for her tiredness, it could have been better – not least because it is easier to speak without a script than with one. Much of the spade work was done before she even planned this visit.

  • she is using modules that are clearly well road-tested,
  • I would bet money that she already has well-worked bridges to link those modules,
  • she has a personal mantra that serves brilliantly as an unmistakeable Face for the speech…

…even when it’s difficult – especially when it’s difficult.

Here’s another bet. I bet that speech poured out of her, onto whatever writing medium she used, as fast as she could write it. There would have been no need to stop and think. If so it demonstrates that she could have delivered this without paper, and I believe she knows it. What she doesn’t know, or trust, is how secure that would have been on the day.

At 11:45, “but we still don’t have results. That’s the thing about a free school, at least our free school: you keep on going without the security of knowing that tomorrow will definitely come.”

She has results now. In August the results came through for the school’s first GSCE exams; and Michaela School was in the stratosphere, among the top performers in the country.

So that silenced the hysterical screams from her detractors, didn’t it?

No, they merely changed tack from, “It’ll never work” to “Her pupils are reduced to cowed, humourless, zombie robots”. But I have friends who have visited her school, in one of the most deprived areas in Britain, and found cheerful, lively children who engage intelligently in conversation and are fiercely loyal to her.

And some of them are now founder-pupils of the new sixth form and are studying for ‘A’ levels. We await those results with interest, but I view with trepidation what they do after that. The current state of many of our universities is so dire that these children will be far too good for them.

But they’ll solve that, even if it’s difficult – especially if it’s difficult.

Paul Selva – a study in calm

The 2019 ARPA-E Energy Innovation Summit, in Denver, Colorado, took place in early July. Keynote speaker on the first morning was General Paul Selva.

To rise to the second most senior post in the biggest military that the world has ever seen, you need to be quite something. For all my pretensions of cynical seen-it-all, I admit that I approached this speech expecting something pretty special. I was not disappointed.

But the most special thing about it is how it presents itself as so ordinary. No wild histrionics, just an enormous message backed by calm matter-of-fact details. If you didn’t listen carefully you could imagine he was discussing the weekend’s shopping, yet the descriptions, details, data, are mind-boggling. It is that characteristic that makes me think that this would be an ideal copybook example to the senior business people who make up nearly all of my trainees. When you are dealing with resources and concepts on this scale, delivering an all-singing, all-dancing performance is of no particular use. Unless, that is, you happen naturally to be an all-singing, all-dancing type of person, in which case you probably wouldn’t be in his position.

It is all so deceptive: this is technically spot-on. He runs sentences together when he wants to sweep us along; he gives us pauses – sometimes quite long ones – when something needs to sink in; he couches data in terms that anyone can understand; and it all acts subliminally under his aura of calm. This is damn good. He gives added meaning to “owning” an audience.

Regular readers of this blog, knowing my obsession with paperless speaking, will wonder as I did what that small sheaf of papers is doing in his hand. He barely looks at it, and when he does he never needs to, reeling off his data and statistics from memory. He periodically peels one sheet off the top and puts it to the bottom, and seems to do it more often than there seem to be pieces of paper which is puzzling. Is it there simply to supply something for him to do with his hands?

And then, shortly before the end, (at 15:30 actually) he reads a quotation from Albert Einstein. That is an absolutely justifiable use of paper, because it shows us he is not paraphrasing.

I’m glad I watched that speech.

Ali G: da Harvard Massive

On June 9, 2004, Harvard’s Class Day Ceremonies received a speech from Ali G.

This could be different.

There’s a very well established showbiz principle that a performer can push the boundaries of acceptability much further if it is perceived that the material is said or done by someone else. Ventriloquists have known this forever and have long delivered, with impunity, outrageous material via their dolls.

Rod Hull was an English comedian who made a good living, routinely submitting people – mainly chat show hosts – to serious physical assault on live Television. He did it by carrying an Emu puppet which viciously did the attacking. YouTube has several videos of it. If he’d done it without the puppet he’d have been arrested.

Some performers exploit exactly the same principle by – so to speak – climbing inside their dolls. For instance I think it’s fair to say that Dame Edna Everage and Sir Les Patterson use material that Barry Humphries could not for himself get past the lawyers. More significantly, for a student of audiences like me, I don’t think Barry Humphries would get the laughs with that particular material either.

Here is that process by Sacha Baron Cohen. Before we consider how funny it is my immediate interest is in the quality of the performance. The characterisation is total, as it is/was with his other characters like Borat and Bruno. It seems to amount almost to self-hypnosis, and makes me suspect that if a crazed lunatic broke out of the audience and attacked him he would defend himself in character.

Is it funny? This is a time capsule, performed fifteen years ago, and it’s interesting to consider how it stands up. It’s fascinating how much parents and university staff of that time are seen to enjoy the show. I was already a bit old for Ali G’s stuff when it was new so I surprised myself here by laughing out loud a couple of times. Riding on that ventriloquist principle he was the height of dangerous edginess at the time, and I’m a sucker for edge and danger in humour, but today’s students are reputed to be very different.

Live and let live: they’re entitled to their tastes so long as they leave me out of it. I believe there’s an adjective – Woke – about which I know very little and couldn’t be bothered to learn because it doesn’t concern me and everything I hear on the subject seems vacuous and bores me rigid; but don’t today’s students get exercised by something they call cultural appropriation? Wouldn’t most of a student audience today need PTSD counselling after a show like this?

I wonder what Sacha Baron Cohen is doing these days.

Michael Heseltine’s half-truths

In Summer 2019 The Oxford Union hosted a talk, followed by Q&A, by The Rt Hon Lord Heseltine. The last time I heard him speak in public was many years before I began this blog, and roughly coincided with the last time I heard him speak in private. He was holding forth at a neighbouring table at a restaurant off Eaton Square in London. Over that I shall draw a veil.

This video lasts more than an hour and sixteen minutes: the talk is thirty-two minutes long. Simple arithmetic tells us that the questions keep coming for essentially three quarters of an hour, and indicates both the interest shown by the audience and Heseltine’s accommodation of it.

No paper. Heseltine is shooting from the hip. I should have been sorely disappointed had it been otherwise.

He opens with the usual courtesies to the Union; but then in quiet and measured tones, which inevitably lay silence upon the audience, he talks of his youngest days. He tells us he was born on the day Hitler was elected Chancellor of Germany (not quite accurate – about five weeks out), and gives us landmarks from his youth which formed his views on what was to become the European Union. It’s a clever and very effective ethos-laden opening.

The whole speech is clever. It’s a politician’s speech, dripping with confected sincerity. But it is a brilliantly constructed tapestry of half-truths. I will supply two examples.

He can’t resist disinterring the weary canard of Winston Churchill saying that we must build a United States of Europe, but like others of his persuasion he carefully omits that in all such urgings Churchill made it clear that Britain should be not part of it, but apart. Churchill said –

We have our own dream and our own task. We are with Europe, but not of it. We are linked but not compromised. We are interested and associated but not absorbed.

He also cites Harold Macmillan’s Winds of Change speech. It will probably come as no surprise to you that I have the transcripts of many notable speeches of history; and to make sure of my recall of that one I dug it out and read it. Heseltine implies that Macmillan was heralding concepts like the EU, whereas he did the opposite. He was calling for freedom and self-determination of nation states.

This sort of misguidance could be the idle result of sloppy research – like the inaccuracy of his birthdate not quite coinciding with Hitler’s election – but merely a cursory glance at his career in politics and business would suggest that sloppy research would not be a habit. I believe we’re looking at carefully constructed half-truths. And, as Mark Twain observed –

A half-truth is the most cowardly of lies.