Julia Gillard rants

As I write, Australia is enjoying – if that’s the word – its first day with a new prime minister. Kevin Rudd should perhaps be more accurately described as a discredited old prime minister that they dragged out to try to salvage the wreckage from policies that he initiated and Julia Gillard exacerbated. That at least is my understanding from a long way away, and it could very easily be wrong. This morning in Britain, on the BBC Today programme, Alastair Campbell, newly returned from a book-promotion visit to Australia, summarised the happenings with all the balance you would expect from Tony Blair’s spin-doctor-in-chief. In the process he mentioned Gillard’s famous ‘misogynist’ speech, which he described as brilliant. Shall we see?

The background, as I understand it, to this speech is that the Speaker, Peter Slipper, has committed a gaffe in the form of an extremely off-colour sexist text message. Mechanisms for disciplining and possibly removing him are in motion, but Tony Abbott, Leader of the Opposition, has demanded his instant removal. Slipper and Abbott are old friends and former parliamentary allies, but Slipper has changed political allegiance and is now part of Gillard’s minuscule majority. Abbott’s haste therefore appears to be opportunistic.

Not for the first time I find myself watching a political speech with incredulity. My niche is business speaking, where every second costs money. Every political second costs money also, but it’s other people’s so it doesn’t matter. Here we have fifteen minutes of ranting, a self-indulgent grievance-fest, that could easily have been wrapped up in two – and been far more effective for it.

Should I be impressed that she shot it all from the hip, referring to paper only for the quotations? No: any politician should be able to do that. Should I luxuriate in the anaphora that begins at 7:00 and then morphs into an extended polysyndeton? No: it merely adds to the turgid verbosity. There’s another anaphora at 11:00 and yet another at 12:20 – ho-hum!

This is school playground stuff, couched in parliamentary language; and politicians wonder why the electorate is more and more holding them in contempt. Alastair Campbell is easily pleased.

Boris – again!

I thought I’d talk about Boris. Well why not? Everyone else is! From the notorious Eddie Mair interview to the BBC2 documentary to comments published about either, Boris has been ubiquitous for the past week. Once again I marvel at my instinctive use of that name. OK, the name is unusual; but still it is a mark of something very particular in a person when friend and foe alike use his Christian name.

I didn’t see the interview, I have better things to do at that time on a Sunday morning, but I did see a flutter of tweets, proclaiming that he had been ‘done-over’, ‘roasted’, ‘defenestrated’, etc, so I later went to see the podcast. In fact, none of those things had happened. Mair made a provocative statement (10:22), “You’re a nasty piece of work, aren’t you!”. There were various options available to Boris at that moment, and he selected the best. He maintained his humour. Also, bear in mind that we don’t see Mair’s face at that moment: I rather suspect there was a twinkle.

Twinkle or not, just try imagining Paxo throwing that one at Blair! There would have been an explosion just off camera with Alastair Campbell‘s name on it. There was a huge twinkle on Robin Day‘s face when asking the question that had John Nott storming out of the studio all those years ago at the time of the Falklands War. By his staying good humoured this was game set and match to Boris and, as Toby Young observed on his blog, all that juicy material has now been neutralised for ever.

One of my trainees asked me last year whether I was going to look at Boris’ contribution to the Conservative Party conference. His comment was that it was the best thing – probably the only good thing – in the conference. At that time I was in the grip of serious Party Conference fatigue, and anyway I had but recently critiqued a Boris speech, so it was something that got put onto the back-burner. Perhaps now is the time to test the world’s Boris fatigue.

Let us remember that when this speech was delivered Boris was riding the crest of a huge wave of post-Olympic popularity. Put that in a mixing bowl with his Mayoral re-election victory and his accustomed relaxed buffoonery, add the requirement to address serious issues in a speech such as this and you actually have a very complex question as to how and where to pitch the tone. Try as I might, I can’t fault it. This man is a very smart operator. You have masses of humour, balanced skilfully against hard political-point-scoring statistics. And when I say ‘balanced’ I refer not only to weight but also to time: just as you start to tire of one type of material he whisks you away to fresh pastures.

And his use of humour is not just buffoonery. Did he deliberately create the very funny episode beginning around 22:40, or merely ride the wave very skilfully when it happened? I don’t know: I suspect the former, but that is not important. What is important is the quality of the interlude in what actually was a serious speech. He works a crowd as well as anyone I’ve seen.

Almost any further comment I make is superfluous: the speech speaks for itself. But I’d like to highlight two technical points. When before he was on this blog I castigated his bad microphone technique – he was popping all the time. I have also been known to declare that technicians are as much to blame for popping as the speaker. Congratulations to the sound engineers: they are using Boris-proof microphones which are too short for him to speak directly into, yet have the range clearly to pick him up. Nary a pop do we hear.

Boris is reading a script, and might be thought to be disproving everything I say about talking heads because he handles a script as well as anyone I’ve seen. (I still think he’d be even better without.) Nevertheless he is committing one technical error. For one ghastly moment I thought his script was printed on both sides of the paper, but having carefully checked his eye-line I am confident that it is not. Why then does he turn each page over? It would be much smoother, less fussy and more discreet merely to slide each completed sheet to the side (I cover this in my book).

And having triumphantly found one thing I can criticise, I shall now retire.

Alastair Campbell uses blokey charm on drinking audience.

Is this the moment to deploy the Marmite cliché?  You love him or you hate him. If you are a Brit your life was certainly effected by him. I don’t know how much influence he had over Tony Blair’s actual policy-making, but he can justifiably claim that Blair’s sustained career as Prime Minister was largely thanks to his efforts.  Blair enjoyed a reputation as a communicator, and Alastair Campbell was his Communications Director. He periodically gets wheeled out by the media to give his views on speeches, but being used to analyse and criticise others’ work doesn’t necessarily make it follow that you yourself are a good speaker. So when a reader suggested that I should have a look at how well he communicated it certainly seemed like an interesting idea.  I went and found this …

He was speaking in July of last year at the Summer Lunch of the UK’s Direct Mail Association.

He opens with quite a sustained period of blokey Mick-taking with members of the audience.  He appears to have been noting comments received before and during the lunch, scribbling all over a sheaf of paper in his hand. Look carefully at that sheaf.  Note the neat fold down its middle: it is not there by accident, and I shall return to that.

On the subject of the Mick-taking, his blokeyness plays towards the obvious fact that a certain amount of booze has been consumed by everyone there.  Or not quite everyone! As a reformed drunk (his expression) he will not have touched a drop. I urge you always to abstain if you are speaking at any sort of gathering like this. With your clear head you can handle an inebriated audience easily! His claim at 1:15 that he doesn’t care if he’s f*ckin’ rubbish is an example of this: he’s smashing his hump and the audience’s in a manner that he has correctly judged will resonate with them.

In fact the whole opening is inspired!  I have already referred to the scribbled notes of the badinage he has earlier shared with audience members: now he regurgitates this stuff for more than four minutes. A two-minute opening is usually enough for hump-busting, but he has assembled a stack of material and isn’t afraid to use it.  It has another function: this opening also represents detailed, real-time, cold (he’s sober, remember), calculated, audience analysis – Cardinal 2.  Yes, he will have done some homework beforehand; but those scribbled notes are pure gold for the purpose of telling him how and where to pitch this speech.

There’s something else in that opening that contains a lesson.  He tells them that someone had told him that he’d been hoping a comedian would be speaking.  I’ve had that said to me too!  Also the late Frank Muir, when I interviewed him for the radio once, related how he’d done a speaking tour in the USA. His american agent had urged him to add liberal doses of american-style razzmatazz to his delivery.  He refused, but  the tour was nevertheless a huge success. Never succumb to pressure – real or perceived – to be anything but yourself. Alastair Campbell got loads of laughs, but if he’d tried to be a comic he’d have died.

Here’s a little challenge: find the moment that the opening ends and the speech starts. He teases you a couple of times, suggesting that this is where the serious stuff begins, and then putting in another bunch of jokey, blokey asides. It’s a good technique, because the audience is kept in a state of relaxed receptiveness till suddenly, seamlessly, the speech-proper has already begun. And it is good, focussed, often serious, stuff on essentially the important distinction between strategy and tactics.  It is worth watching.

He shoots it from the hip.  The paper goes down at the end of his opening.  He knows exactly where he’s going and he speaks his way there in spontaneous terms.  You can do that: anyone can do that: I teach people all the time to do that.

But now I want to return to that halfway fold in his sheaf of paper. He hadn’t folded it to fit in his pocket, or he’d have folded it in three. There’s another reason. Just before the 23-minute mark he begins a good hard poke at the Daily Mail, whose offices are across the street from where he’s speaking. That poke culminates in his demonstrating what you should do with a copy of the Daily Mail. He tears his sheaf of papers neatly in half. You just try tearing a sheaf of papers neatly in half without having a hard fold down the middle.

Alastair Campbell did not make a successful career in communication by leaving things to chance. That speech conveys the appearance of a rambling meander down myriad corridors of anecdote and argument, but it is all very carefully constructed – even down to his providing himself with a stage prop: sheaf of paper with halfway hard-fold, tearing for the purpose of.

I contend that appearing to use it for referring to those scribbled notes was merely a blind to justify its existence in his hand.  He could have delivered that opening without that paper. My evidence?  At 1:50 he makes a big play of scrutinizing it to find the name of someone called Colin who has a girlfriend called Melissa – you can see the business for yourself. Both Colin and Melissa are referred to again later, repeatedly, unhesitatingly, without reference to that paper.  He doesn’t need that paper at all except to tear it in half, but he justifies its presence with that clever opening.  That shows me just how strategically he had thought through this speech.

N.B. Strategy was his theme.

P.S. the first seconds of the video show a spelling of his name which is incorrect, if his own website is to be believed.

Happy New Year!

Thanks to masses of suggestions from readers, to whom heartfelt thanks, I have in my sights a large pile of speeches by people both famous and obscure (some of them are listed below).

Critiques will be flowing in 2013!

Meanwhile here some general tips on speaking…

Dumb is putting aside hours for preparation:
Smart is learning how to prepare very quickly.

Dumb is making sure your presentation dots every i and crosses every t:
Smart is making sure your audience understands and remembers the message.

Dumb is learning how to cope with nerves:
Smart is learning how to exploit them.

Dumb is toiling over a script:
Smart is not needing one.

Dumb is being conscious of how you are looking:
Smart is being conscious of how your audience is responding.

Dumb is thinking you can overnight become a stand-up comedian:
Smart is learning how otherwise to employ humour.

Dumb is handling the stress:
Smart is relishing your relationship with your audience.

Dumb is hoping they’ll hear you:
Smart is developing your voice and enunciation.

Dumb is practising the skill till you can get it right:
Smart is practising it till you can’t get it wrong.

Dumb is thinking that this blog is a part-work to learning the skill:
Smart is getting maximum benefit from the blog by laying down strong foundations.

And stand by to read my dissections of luminaries like Alain de Boton, Dan Pink, Danny Moore, Elizabeth de Gilbert, Vivienne Westwood, Tim Montgomerie, George Monbiot, Gawain Towler, Alastair Campbell, Roger Kimball, Donna Laframboise, Mark Steyn, Christopher Monckton, Matthew Elliott, etc.  Also I shall be revisiting some of the people we looked at in 2012.

N.B. Who remembers when I looked at Stephen Emmott, described elsewhere as the worst public speaker in the world?  I wasn’t very kind, but I didn’t give him that title. The reason is that one of those in the previous paragraph is even worse.