Professional acting is not for adults

Sir Alec Guinness, so the story goes, had just delivered a talk to a school when a boy rushed up to him. “Sir, sir,” said the boy eagerly, “I want to be an actor when I grow up.” The Great Man looked at him a little pityingly.   “My dear boy,” he said, “you can’t do both.”

When I was a stagestruck teenager, I saw a TV interview with Alfred Hitchcock. He made me bridle at his patronizing attitude to actors. These were my gods, and he referred to them as if they were not very bright children. It was not till I became a professional actor that I found he was right. That was one reason that, despite having enjoyed a certain measure of success, I packed the profession in: I wanted to spend my working hours in an environment of more intellectual weight.

There were exceptions, of course. but in general I found that actors who lived by artifice were so focused on skin-deep appearance that they held opinions that were built on sand, opinions that were as shallow as damp linoleum. “All you need is love” rather summed it up. It was not that my opinion sometimes differed from theirs, it was that they were incapable of backing up their arguments with anything more substantial than what made them feel good.

I said that there were exceptions, and I know that the shallowness of the theatrical existence is a source of pain to many pros. A hugely successful actor with whom I worked in the 60s was recently quoted in an interview as saying the whole business was bullshit. This morning we awoke to the tragic news that Robin Williams had apparently taken his own life. I would not dream of claiming that it was shallow showbiz rather than pathological depression that caused him to die by his own hand, but I don’t suppose it helped.

Daniel Hannan, who is no stranger to readers here, recently tweeted a fresh link to an article he blogged in April 2011. In it he pondered why actors get treated by the media as omniscient, and get invited to pronounce on so many unsuitable topics.

The answer is simple. They are unusually articulate. Articulacy is their stock-in-trade. That, coupled with the fame that will cause viewers and listeners to pay attention, makes them a gift to producers. Who cares that they have nothing worth saying when they say it so beautifully? And the relationship is symbiotic: performing fleas can keep their names and faces in the public consciousness by popping up all over the media.

The ones who actually have something worth saying tend to keep their own counsel.

I now have the best job in the world. I get to work with people of substance who are bright; who create things and wealth and jobs; who may have opinions at odds with mine but who defend them with data. My role is to liberate their latent coherence and make them at least as articulate as any actor. And I am told I am good at it. So when I drive home after delivering coaching, and if on the radio I hear some tiresome luvvie elegantly spouting hollow drivel, I have the satisfaction of knowing that I am redressing the articulacy imbalance, one person at a time.

Donna Laframboise – surrendered her focus to slides

Donna Laframboise is a Canadian investigative journalist who has a blog called No Frakking Consensus. She is also the author of The Delinquent Teenager Who Was Mistaken for the World’s Top Climate Expert. She says that the blog began as notes for the book which is an expose of The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. I’ve read her blog, and she writes well: how does she speak?

In July 2012 she was invited to speak at a meeting of Australia’s Institute of Public Affairs.

She seems not to bother with ethos. We seem not to be told anything about her credentials for standing there, speaking to us. Then again we don’t see her introduction. I have a suspicion that all her credentials were aired before we joined the party. The first we see and hear is about a minute’s worth of humble thanks and tributes to the host organisation – and this gives me an opportunity briefly to ride one of my hobby-horses.

In my experience this is a mistake. However sincerely we mean it – and I have no doubt she does – sticking a thank-fest on the front of a speech is mildly counter-productive. I hold this opinion not through firm knowledge as to why it should be (though you will see I have theories), but through studying audiences. It switches them off.

It could be that it smacks of smarmy Oscar award ceremonies; it could be that the audience is thinking that thou dost protest too much; it could be impatience – “yeah, yeah, just cut to the chase!”. I suspect there’s an element of much of that, but my favoured theory is that you belittle yourself at just the time you should be establishing your authority. Watch the start of this speech and she is thanking them for having bothered to leave their comfortable homes to listen to little old her.

I am certainly not saying that it is wrong to pay these tributes, merely that you should not do it at the beginning. You need to find another way to fill that audience-settling minute, and another place to put the tributes. It isn’t even good for hump-busting because you have yet to seize control of the proceedings. Look at how the first thing she does at the end of the thank-fest is to grab a drink of water. She still has a dry mouth! The audience is eagerly hear-hearing what she said, but they are not yet her audience.

Immediately afterwards she hits them between the eyes with a wonderful opening sentence, delivered with all the authority I could wish. That switches them on. Now they are her audience.

Within seconds she appears to commit an error which I bet any trainee of mine, or reader of my book, will have spotted. She refers to “a professor at the University of Colarado…” without naming him. I seize my notepad. A minute or so later it emerges that she merely deferred naming him until she could display him up on the screen. It was Roger Pielke jr.

Sadly that screen is off-camera, so we cannot tell how Pielke is represented. Is there a handsome portrait, together with a brief list of his accomplishments? Who knows? But this brings me to another of my hobby horses.

Visuals require very careful handling. They very easily break the rhythm of your speech, rob you of your audience’s focus, turn the thing into a slide-show-with-commentary. For us here, the one thing it doesn’t do is rob our focus because we can’t see the slides; but we can see to what extent her flow is impeded by suddenly playing second-fiddle to a bunch of pictures. Also she is surrendering her focus by looking at the big screen rather than at a slave screen in front of her. Were the slides worth it? I can understand why she used them: she wanted a rogues’ gallery. Maybe it worked: I don’t know. I listen in vain for sound clues from the audience, but without seeing the slides themselves I am unable to pass further judgement.

Concerning the speech as a whole, I have essentially one more observation. When referring to Roger Pielke (above) she concedes with respect that though she is sceptical he sincerely believes in the theory of man-made climate change. That sort of intellectual honesty is sadly too often lacking in the climate change debate. That makes her worth listening to. It also makes her worth reading.

When I posted here some weeks ago a critique of a speech by Matt Ridley, I held back on reading his book, The Rational Optimisttill after I’d published my critique. Likewise I have not yet read Laframboise’s book, The Delinquent Teenager Who Was Mistaken for the World’s Top Climate ExpertI note that on its page at Amazon there is a rave review for it from the same Matt Ridley. I really enjoyed Ridley’s book: I’m looking forward to Laframboise’s.

Osborne and Balls. Stuff and nonsense.

There are times when the limitation I imposed upon myself for this blog –

discuss how they state their case and possibly how they might have stated it better, but do not get involved with the case itself

– is sorely tried. In fact today I’m going to breach it for one paragraph.

Watching footage of yesterday’s exchange in parliament between George Osborne and Ed Balls I just wanted to wade in, slap both their silly little faces, tell them to stop behaving like imbecilic juveniles, and actually start applying some serious new thought to the parlous state of the country’s economy. If you sweep aside the spin (which actually doesn’t need much sweeping since it is already pathetically flimsy) you realise that there is essentially no difference in the economic strategies of the last administration and this. Both are wedded to weary, discredited, bastardised  Keynesian principles, both are determined to do nothing more creative than firehose artificial money at real problems, both are hell-bent on steering the paddle-less craft further and further up the creek. And all to the accompaniment of puerile, tribal name-calling. And the preposterous BBC compounds the problem by acting as cheerleaders. Did you hear the Today programme this morning?  I had to leave the room in disgust. That programme used to be quite good, but your memory has to go back a few years.

Right! Back to my brief.

Sorry, Eddie dear. I both sympathise with you over your stammer and congratulate you on the success you have so far had in battling it. Nevertheless a stammer can do all sorts of things, but does not make you say the opposite of what you intended to say. I know that little Georgie had a script and therefore an advantage over you, but if either of you were any good at speaking you neither would need scripts. What you’d need is command of the subject, conviction and cool heads.

But you appear to have none of those things.