Daniel Hannan inspires at Runnymede

This month, June 2015, sees the 800th anniversary of the sealing of Magna Carta. Here we have a chance to revisit my critique of a speech Daniel Hannan made at Runnymede. Also you should go here to watch a new video he has made at and about Runnymede

Rhetauracle

[Having twice before covered speeches by Daniel Hannan, here and here, I have felt reluctant to return to him too often. Meanwhile I have been sitting agonising over two recent speeches, wondering which to include in this blog. I can’t decide between them, so I shall critique both in consecutive postings…]

On Friday 13 September, 2013, The Freedom Association hosted a lecture at Runnymede entitled

Magna Carta: the Secular Miracle of the English Speaking Peoples.

It was delivered by Daniel Hannan; and my being currently about halfway through his excellent book How we invented freedom & why it matters I have to say that choosing him for this lecture was not merely inspired but downright inevitable. Not only is he a magnificent speaker, not only has he studied Magna Carta’s historical significance in considerable depth but there was no danger whatever of his breaking the first Cardinal…

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Emma Watson’s voice is trailing her face

It made all the papers! In September 2014 Emma Watson spoke at the United Nations about gender equality and the he-for-she campaign. The speech was universally described as ‘moving’. Shall we see whether we agree?

Before we reach Ms Watson we see and hear her introducer making a mistake that I have previously identified in this blog. If you are at the lectern you should never join in with the applause. It feels right, but looks and sounds wrong.

Oh dear, how vulnerable her voice sounds! She is very nervous indeed. It is understandable, but I am anxious to know whether this is merely a manifestation of hump, or whether it is more deeply rooted.

The worst of the vulnerability recedes in around 3 minutes, which is par for a hump, but now there’s something else bothering me and I can’t put my finger on it. She does not look down at the lectern, but nor is she shooting from the hip. This is a learnt script: I’d stake big money on that. I’m not surprised: she is after all an actor. The learnt performance has also been thoroughly rehearsed, but again that is what actors do.

Quite often I find I can identify problems with speakers by closing my eyes and letting my hearing operate without visual interference. I try this, and am quite alarmed by the result. She now sounds monotonous, frankly boring, and the voice is fragile.

This is what has been bothering me. Visually she is conveying a very strong and expressive picture; but the sound, when taken alone, is frighteningly weak.

I am trying to resist a facile, knee-jerk analysis along the lines of film-actor-hasn’t-learnt-proper-stage-voice-projection, though there could be something in that. At any rate, her voice is nothing like as expressive as her face.  This is a pity.

It is laudable when young people, having made a success in one thing, branch out and challenge themselves in other directions. Emma Watson is to be congratulated, but I hope she doesn’t stop working at this particular skill because she has a way to go. Also, thus far, her work has been misdirected: learning a script is absolutely not the right way to prepare for a speech. If someone has told her it is, that someone needs to do something more suited to their talents.

Ian Paisley with peace in his pockets

On 12 September – yesterday – the world bid its last goodbye to The Reverend and the Right Honourable The Lord Bannside PC, better known to the world as Ian Paisley

If you are looking for an Ian Paisley speech you instinctively reach for ear-plugs, because for years every time he was seen on television speaking to the public we saw something like this …

Yet every obituary in the broadcast media has had people stressing how in private he was a very quiet man. Indeed many years ago, at the height of the Northern Ireland troubles, I saw a TV documentary that strongly made that very point. Therefore I have chosen to reflect on the man with this, his House of Commons farewell speech. It was on 22 March, 2010, while the House of Commons was debating the transfer of policing and justice powers to North Ireland.

 

He is speaking with his hands in his pockets. From my earliest days training people in speaking I often persuaded men that speaking with your hands in your pockets can convey a desirable image of confidence, authority and sincerity, and also underlines that you are speaking without notes. (It doesn’t really work for women, not least because they seldom have pockets.)

Paisley doesn’t need the help of paper to drop a nice little anadiplosis into the first ten seconds; but it isn’t smart-alec figures of speech that mark this delivery. We have already started reading obituaries and tributes to the way he went from tub-thumping, mob-inciting ranting to emollient peacemaking, working with his enemies to bring and keep peace in North Ireland. This is my way of highlighting the emollience.

I can’t resist drawing attention to what he says at 1:27. Standing, as I said, with his hands in his pockets, he urges those with opposing views to keep their hands in their pockets. I like the reflected imagery.

It’s not in itself a brilliant speech. It goes on a little longer than it should: there were several places that he could well have stopped earlier. But it represents far more than it says, and I like to remember him this way.

R.I.P.

Jonathan Portes is not optimal

On 20 November 2013 economist Jonathan Portes delivered a talk at the Institute for International and European Affairs entitled Crisis and recovery in Europe: what have we learnt?

In addition to my evaluating the quality of the speaking, I was eager to hear what he had to say. After all, probably the most important thing for him to have learnt is what caused the crisis in the first place, particularly when as one of the chief holders of Britain’s economic reins at the time Portes could justifiably be held to have been one of the prime architects of said crisis.

I am slightly allergic to the starting of sentences, let alone whole speeches, with “So…” but that’s probably my age. I am trusting the quality will pick up. It doesn’t. This must count as one of the handful of dreariest openings I have ever had the misfortune to hear

The only thing that can be said in its favour is that Portes does eventually lay out his stall by giving us a pair of little triads by way of a contents page for his speech – “diagnosis, prescription, prognosis: how did we get into this mess, what have we been doing since we got into this mess, where do we go from here?”. That could have been inspired by my book, and was looking as if something constructive was coming.

After a sustained period of verbal wandering around aimlessly he declares that “fiscal policy was not the cause”. Got that? Not his fault. He admits that fiscal policy was “not optimal”. (This is bureaucratese for “piss-poor”.) There remains an obvious and so far unanswered question, namely what then was the cause? He addresses this, and the next minute or so could have come from a Monty Python Spoof as he “ums”, “errs”, and generally meanders, restarts several sentences, and finally pins it on the US, the Chinese, and “structural imbalances”. I half expected him to blame it all on global warming or the tooth-fairy.

As convincing speaking goes, this is not optimal.

He is in general shooting from the hip. His frequent glances down at the lectern are really so as not to get caught by all the unconvinced eyes that I feel sure are in the room. The curious thing is that there comes a time in the speech when I want him to look more at the lectern.

At 15:40 he puts up a slide with a graph on it, and for quite a while he speaks to the image on the wall. Had he been speaking through his left ear or his left shoulder the microphone would have picked it up wonderfully: in the event, the sound is not optimal. I reckon it likely that he has that graph and later ones in hard-copy on the lectern, in which case he merely needs to glance over his shoulder to acknowledge the image on the wall but otherwise he can keep his face to the audience, his sound to the microphone and look at the graphs in front of him. Just after the 31-minute mark when he turns over his paper he shows me I was right.

This speech would cure an insomniac.

Readers of this blog, in which I rail so often at those who bury themselves in scripts, might be tempted to conclude that all they have to do is find a way to do without paper and everything will be tickety-boo. I’m sorry but there’s a little more to it than that. You need to structure your material in such a way as to make it easy for you to drive your message. Before that you need a message. Before that you need to understand your subject. Albert Einstein is quoted as follows –

If you can’t explain it to a six year old, you don’t understand it yourself.

Considered on that basis, this speech shows that Portes’ understanding of economics is … not optimal.

Dennis Skinner – a class act.

When Tony Benn died in March 2014, his obituaries in the British main stream media were remarkable for the uniformity of their post mortem affection for him. To the political left he was a hero: to the political right he was mad, but everyone recognized the sincerity of his beliefs. He was widely heralded as one of the last of a dying breed of conviction politicians who actually meant what they said, and the absolute last of the left-wing firebrand parliamentarians. This was incorrect. There remains Dennis Skinner, who delivered a remarkable eulogy to Benn in the House of Commons.

The halting nature of his opening: is this genuine reluctance to speak or a clever piece of decorum creation? You decide. I rather think the latter.

Thank heaven for TV cameras in Parliament (I am old enough to remember the ferocious opposition to them). The meagre attendance in the Chamber means that this wonderful piece of speaking would have been largely wasted without this video making it available to posterity.

It really is outstanding.

I realize that there are times when some readers might find him so difficult to understand that they’d like subtitles. This will be particularly true of readers from outside the UK – but by no means exclusively. Skinner would not be Skinner without his Derbyshire accent, though his enunciation is excellent.

Essentially what we are watching is raconteurism of a very high quality. He narrates incidents connected with Benn, and does so with wonderful changes of tone-colour, rhythm, pace, volume, intensity, etc. One minute his fellow members of parliament are in hysterics, the next you can hear a pin drop.

I have nothing further to add. Enjoy it: it’s brilliant.

Jamie Oliver had a good teacher.

In February 2010 Jamie Oliver delivered a TED talk in Long Beach, California, on a theme that has obsessed him for many years, healthy eating.

Bald opening! It’s just a single sentence, so – although arresting – it hardly qualifies as a James Bond film opening, but who cares? His opening sentence preceded his introduction of himself. In a sense he grabbed our hand before shaking it. This is an excellent start, and sets the bar high for this talk.

He carries a sheaf of cards in his hand. He gestures with them, fiddles with them, slaps them occasionally, and does everything except read from them. I suspect that they contain a few prompts and are there purely for their presence to reduce his stress. I can’t fault this. He shoots everything from the hip.

Oliver has been presenting TV programmes for many years, and the nature of those programmes is such that he has had a lot of practice at shooting from the hip. There are plenty of people for whom that sentence is just as true, but who – when placed on a speaking platform – stick a script on the lectern, their thumb in their mouth, and wear an invisible but unmistakeable caption that says “prat”. There is a reason: a camera lens is not the same as an auditorium full of people; and making the transition requires the application or more effort than they could be bothered to spare.

At 1:20 he plays the audience by requesting a show of hands. The exercise has essentially no value other than making them feel involved. He does nothing with the information, but it was a good thing to do. This keeps getting better.

He produces a graph that shows that obesity kills several times as many people as guns, yet we all know that it generates a fraction of the media outrage. He plays the Brit-lecturing-the-yanks card well, and with enough charm to harvest laughs with it. He works a good visual episode in which he tips a wheelbarrow full of sugar onto the stage. It represents, for the average American child’s five year education period, the sugar consumption from flavoured milk alone. He deploys periodic claptraps, gets the required applause for most of them; and for the few that fail to bring forth fruit he doesn’t dwell but pushes on. He presents gratifyingly short video clips that pithily illustrate points he is making. This whole thing is beautifully put together, and skilfully delivered.

We may quarrel with some of his assertions: we may sit and think, “yes, but…” and many probably will. That is what discourse is for. For my part I have moments when I wince a little, because I have developed an allergy to busybody social policing in all its guises. But I am relieved that he never quite calls for the cold, dead hand of official bureaucracy to get involved. He seems less anti-bad-habits than pro-good-habits, and that is a saving grace – urging people to put pressure on industry, the retail sector, educators and themselves to learn to do better. Consumer power is preferable to social police.

Now I must replace my rhetor hat…

Whoever taught Jamie Oliver to speak this well, I salute them. Could it have been Jamie Oliver?