Keir Starmer: competing with paint

On 13 December, 2016, Sir Keir Starmer delivered a speech at Bloomberg in London. He is the Shadow Secretary of State for exiting the European Union.

I read a Tweet from someone who, on the basis of a speech one day, described him as the most boring speaker he had ever heard. Naturally, though suspecting that partisan bias might have been at play, I had to investigate further. Sadly I have thus far failed to find that speech on line, but I have found this one. Why don’t you and I make up our own minds on the basis of what we find.

Well it isn’t about to set the world on fire, though I have known considerably worse. The main problem is that it has been scripted, and the scripting has hallmarks of the civil service. Let us look at some specifics.

He takes far too long to get going. From that opening Starmer stammer, which I am sure is not real but an affectation, up to 2:40 could beneficially be binned. It fails to contribute anything. He has in there a faintly humorous observation about his job-title. I have no problem with that, or the faint humour, but I do have a problem with his pause inviting audience response which doesn’t materialise. As throw-away humour it would have worked, but that pause made it lame.

At 2:23 he utters the words, “My speech today will be…” Did you get that? “Will be..” He is acknowledging that he hasn’t started yet, even though he is nearly two and a half minutes in. Two and a half minutes is actually an optimum length for an inconsequential opening (for technical reasons that I’ll spare you), but it needs to be a better two and a half minutes than that.

2:40 sees the beginning of a good epistrophe. As a bald opening that would have been powerful.

At 10:40 there’s a strong anaphora, and at 12:50 there’s another. There may have been more but the tediousness of the delivery makes it difficult to concentrate.

All these suggest professional speechwriting; and the even-handed balance of much of the message supports that view. The speech is relatively weasel-free for a politician.

I appreciate that balance, because not enough remainers have publicly made the point that if the referendum had gone the other way, and leavers had protested and obstructed as aggressively as remainers have, it would have been considered a scandal.

He is also right about the Cameron government’s disgraceful dereliction of duty that absolutely no plans were in place against a Brexit vote.

Yes, I am sure that professional speechwriter(s) were involved here, and it’s a quality job. But to be a good speaker, Starmer needs to learn how to dispense with his script and permit his personality to show. Reading causes him to scatter the speech with reading-stumbles, which are quite different from (and lamer than) speaking stumbles. Worst of all, reading makes his delivery tedious.

I became fascinated by the tangerine paint behind him.

John Bird is magnificent

In October 2015, the founder of The Big Issue was elevated to the House of Peers.  He is John Bird, and in February 2016 he made his maiden speech.

In future, if anyone asks me what I do, I think I might refer them to this speech. Acquaintances, relatives, even quite close friends seem to have a vague notion that I earn my crust by polishing up people’s accents, or getting them to stand ‘correctly’ and orate. Anyone with whom I have worked on public speaking will greet such thoughts with the same wry smile, because actually I bully people into being themselves. There’s a little more to it, for instance in terms of structuring your material for optimum digestibility for your audience and optimum memorability for yourself etc., but the foundation is always being yourself.

I tear scripts out of their hands because that bloody paper is a screen between them and their audience, but also because it is a screen between them and themselves.

I repeatedly tell my trainees that the most engaging, compelling and persuasive they can be is when they are being themselves, warts and all, and speaking spontaneously.

Yes, there is such a thing as appropriateness; but once a speaker has learnt to come out from behind one of those ghastly but ubiquitous self-imposed masks, they are better equipped to steer an appropriate course while still being themselves.

Watch this speech, and see what I am talking about. For a start there’s no paper: the words he speaks are always the words that come to him at the time – genuinely spontaneous. He pushes the boundary of appropriateness by describing someone (affectionately) as a bugger; but he doesn’t sleep-walk into it because a little earlier he  correctly referred to a fellow Peer as “the noble Lady”. He knows what he is doing, makes his own policy decisions, and trusts himself to speak spontaneously.

I have had people challenging my position by stating that pre-scripting a speech enables a better choice of words and phrasing. My reply tends to refer to round objects.

Listen to Bird, shooting from the hip from his bald opening to his courteous close, and you will hear for instance an elegant and lengthy anaphora (“when I was…”) beginning at 3:40, and there are more such. You will hear very accomplished comedy timing. You will hear a wide variety of rhythm, pacing and vocal tone. You will, in short, hear an exemplary piece of public speaking: well conceived, well structured, well delivered.

Yes you will also hear stumbles, slips of the tongue, and other mistakes – but who cares? Listen to someone reading a script and you will likewise hear all those things, but they have a different, lamer, more toe-curling quality than from spontaneous speech.

The most important people at any speech are in the audience. We can hear their appreciation from time to time, but there is one who is almost constantly in view. I refer to the Noble Lady we can see over his right shoulder. I wish I knew who she was because she has a wonderfully expressive face. He can’t see her, but he has her in the palm of his proverbial hand. Never once does she doubt his sincerity.

What a magnificent speaker!

Vebjørn Selbekk: a study in courage

On 26 September, 2015, in a room in the Danish Parliament in Copenhagen, there was held an event that the British Foreign and Commonwealth Office deemed so inflammatory, extremist and fraught with controversy that, clutching their pearls, they advised people against going near it. It was certainly dangerous. International Conference: The Danish Muhammad cartoon crisis in retrospect was its title. Free speech was its theme.

We have already seen the speech by Henryk Broder from Germany. Today we shall examine the contribution by Vebjørn Selbekk from Norway.

I’m afraid he’s reading. All the comments that I expressed concerning Henryk Broder reading his speech apply here. That includes the view that nevertheless I’d prefer to hear him reading this than not hear it at all.

As with Broder, I skipped to the Q&A at the end to see whether his spontaneous English speaking was strong enough to shoot from the hip. It is. At 25:09 there’s a long, spontaneous and eloquent anaphora in answer to a question. There was a little bit of “um” and “er” in his answers, but that doesn’t bother me. When people complain to me that a speaker has too much “um” and “er”, it bothers me only that people notice. If people notice, it means that they are not sufficiently absorbed by what the speaker is saying. As with any other mannerism my advice to speakers is not to try to avoid it, but to get more interesting so that people no longer notice.

Within seconds of Selbekk beginning to speak I became so gripped that he could have been wearing a pink woolly cap with a bell on it for all I cared.

His story is horrendous, and shames too many people. The picture it paints of the political establishment is a scandal. When you think of that posturing row of self-satisfied people at the front of the Charlie Hebdo march in Paris a year ago, and overlay that image with the craven appeasement that has nurtured the constant flow of abominations in the name of a religion whose name apparently means “Peace”, it represents an international outrage.

Today it seems that an unguarded reproof of Islamism on Twitter can get you charged with a Hate Crime.

Hate? At 8:00 Selbekk describes the tide of death-threats to which he was subjected as a “Black and muddy wave of hate”. That is an appropriate use of the word. The mild sort of expressed disapproval that these days apparently lands you in court is not.

Islamophobia? I have just sought a definition of “phobia” from Google. Here is the answer: an extreme or irrational fear of or aversion to something. If anyone can tell me what is irrational about not wanting your throat cut I’d be interested to learn it.

People in general want to get on peacefully with people in general. When a faction within those people misbehaves, and disturbs the peace, it is the duty of the delegated authorities to stop them. Is that what we have seen happening?

Selbekk shows us with stark clarity what happens when delegated authorities – and I mean governments the world over – neglect that duty. The world is paying the price.

I salute Selbekk for his courage, as I salute everyone involved with this conference.

Bronwyn Oatley: a star speaker in the making

A reader of this blog referred me to the 2013 student commencement speech at Middlebury College, Vermont.

In the first minute I was struck by the quality of the speaking which is good enough for me to get really picky; but I could not at first discern what made this so particularly outstanding. I soon learnt.

The speaker is Bronwyn Oatley. She delivered this speech two years ago, so I am critiquing a time-capsule. I wonder how good she is now.

She has learnt her first few sentences. Memorized words sound slightly different from true shooting from the hip, but I am not complaining. It is a good plan as a hump-buster, though her hump lasts a little longer than the bit she has memorized. Again, this is not criticism: very few would spot the nervous symptoms, but I’m paid to do so.

She needs to learn to not pop the microphone. Almost every ‘p’ she utters causes the mic to pop, and it’s a distraction. Never point the mic at your mouth, or your mouth at the mic. Speak across it, not at it.

Her formal opening concerns a quote from G.B.Shaw. A smile forms on my face because many years ago I helped someone prepare a speech based on this very quote. It’s a beauty and I commend her choice.

This is good, clear, confident speaking, and beautifully tailored to her audience. There’s an early section full of in-jokes and reference to college events. These obviously mean nothing to me, and allow me to concentrate on the effect she is having on her audience. The staff members behind her, particularly the man on her left, are enjoying every nuance. The audience in front of her responds exactly as it should. Ultimately this, and not the pontification of someone like me, is the only test that matters.

At 4:27 she begins a good, long anaphora series – “I’m talking about the unreasonable…” This is well-constructed stuff, though she is not quite confident enough of her structure to dispose of her notes. The only fully justified time to look at paper has so far been when she overtly read a quote from the campus newspaper.  Other glances down at the lectern are essentially comfort stuff. In one hour I could have her throwing away paper for ever.

At 5:17 she does something brave. She gets personal and talks about herself. This is difficult to do at the best of times, but she makes it not the best of times by addressing the matter of her own sexuality. She recounts her journey of self-discovery and her coming out to her mother. Though she is talking about herself she arranges that Middlebury College be the hero of the story. The stability and support of the community is what saw her through the crisis.

If a pin dropped it would be deafening. Even when she momentarily tries to lighten the mood with a little personal humour the audience is so moved that silence prevails. The balance line between paying a sincere tribute and lapsing into mawkishness is very narrow, but she finds it. This section is quite remarkable.

She breaks the spell at 7:18. The man on her left smiles, and within seconds the hall is full of laughter and applause. She plays this audience like a violin.

At 9:30 she signals her closing by returning to that G.B.Shaw quotation. Every one of my trainees will testify how much I like it when speakers pair their openings and closings – the matter comes up at every course. It is elegant and professional. It closes the circle and cues the applause. Bronwyn closes beautifully… apart from the microphone popping.

Sadhguru Jaggi Vasudev returns

In April 2013 Emory University, in Atlanta Georgia, hosted a talk by the mystic, Sadhguru Jaggi Vasudev.

He has appeared four times previously on this blog, and the first of those remains my most viewed posting. Barely a day passes without there being several visitors to it. Are they coming to study his speaking skill or listen to his wisdom? I neither know nor care, because I have the same question with regard to myself. I luxuriate in how well he speaks, but mainly listen to what he says about life. He does not have all the answers. If he claimed that I would spurn him. What he has is guidance on how we should seek our own answers.

The reason I am featuring him again, apart from merely indulging myself, is because he displays some fundamental lessons for all speakers.

He likes to begin with that chanting. The one time on this blog that he didn’t was his least successful appearance on it. I am convinced it is a focus device, a form of yoga if you will. It lasts about a minute, so it will also double as a hump-buster. The rest of us would have difficulty in employing it, but we all use what we can to get on a roll.

He looks other-worldly, but doesn’t sound it. This is because he absolutely isn’t. His Isha Foundation is a hugely successful business, for which he makes no apology but instead uses its riches to do much valuable philanthropic work.

He doesn’t take himself seriously. His philosophy, yes, his work, yes, himself no. That is such an important lesson for life as well as for speaking. There’s some lovely, gentle self-mockery. The self-mockery extends to beyond himself. Listen to the way he speaks about India. His love for his country is obviously profound, but that doesn’t stop him ribbing it. All of that will charm any audience.

He has a habit of asking what appear to be rhetorical questions, and then asking for an answer. This keeps the audience slightly on the back foot, but also on its toes. If you are on your toes you pay attention. It’s clever.

He is wonderfully adept at classic rhetorical devices. There is a long and elaborate anaphora series “If you become pleasant …” beginning at 12:35. These things are not only really easy to deliver because of their logical progress, but they are just as easy for an audience to absorb. Win – win.

He needs no script: he needs no notes: he needs no slides. Many people think that this is a magical trick, but they are wrong. It is easy: you merely need to know how to do it. He has structured this whole hour-long talk in a way that has each section following logically from its predecessor. Also he knows his subject. You know your subject, so if you likewise structured your material you would not need script, notes or slides either.

But I think the single most important lesson that he provides for speakers comes from who he is and what he does. This man is supremely comfortable in his skin – do we have any doubt at all about that? His very stock-in-trade is that inner peace that I try to get my trainees to embrace. Thus he spares not a nano-thought to himself, but simply focuses on what this audience needs to hear and how best therefore to tell it to them.

That is the ideal mindset for any speaker. That is why he is so good. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to listen to him.

Shmuley Boteach persuades with powerful histrionics.

The Oxford Union held a debate on the motion:  This House Believes Hamas is a Greater Obstacle to Peace Than Israel. Shmuley Boteach spoke on the proposition.

Rabbi Boteach puts in a ten second pause at the beginning. An opening pause is very powerful. Counter-intuitively it actually gets the audience’s attention and is a good reducer of nerves. Ten seconds is huge, and I think it works for him.

An overt gag at the very front of a speech is not a good idea. As soon as the audience become aware that this is a gag, there is pressure on them to laugh – which paradoxically makes it less likely that they will do so. It’s a good gag, well told, and deserves a bigger laugh, but now you know why it doesn’t get it. It would work better a little later in the speech, but it would have less point then: its point now is the injection of poison into the Middle East. Boteach’s skill as a speaker is already abundantly clear, so I have no doubt that he had a debate with himself along the lines of the early part of this paragraph. He knows all that stuff and simply made a policy decision.

Halfway through his second minute he launches an extended symploce on the words “as if you […] bad people”. No sooner has that run its course than he is into anaphora – “if a Jew did that…”. Does he know these obscure terms? I have no idea, but as I made clear in this posting it’s not necessary to know the words to deploy the figures of speech..

He delivers with histrionic fervour. This is theatre! He doesn’t have quite the operatic tone of Cornel West, but being less distracting he is probably more persuasive. He is phenomenally persuasive

Please do not infer that I think this performance is just artifice. There is no doubt in my mind that Boteach means every word from the depths of his soul.

And as a speaker he is outstanding.

Thatcher’s last speech – The Mummy Returns

On 22 May 2001, at a general election rally in Plymouth, Baroness Thatcher came out of retirement long enough to take the stage for what was probably her last big speech. My speaking students will understand when I say that the speech had a Face – “The Mummy Returns“.

There is a transcript of the speech downloadable here.

Say “The two Ronnies” to most British people and they will immediately think of Messrs Barker and Corbett, whose comedy partnership is a TV legend; but to those of us involved with British Theatre in the mid-sixties there was an earlier pair of Ronnies. Ron Grainer and Ronald Millar collaborated on two West End musicals, Robert & Elizabeth, which opened in 1964 ran for nearly a thousand performances and has been revived several times since, and On the Level which opened in 1966 and died shortly afterwards. I briefly assisted Ronnie Grainer during that time: a sort of unpaid internship, sharpening pencils and making tea.

What has that riveting nugget to do with this speech?  Only that Ronnie Millar went on to become Thatcher’s speechwriter, for which he was awarded a knighthood. It was he who was credited with “The Lady’s Not for Turning”. He didn’t write this speech, he died in 1998, though I think he would have approved.

Thatcher lived in an era when formal oratory was still the norm and today’s style of conversational sincerity had yet to take hold. Everyone used to read their speeches from scripts, and delivery was relatively stiff. What is remarkable about this bit of speaking is how modern it sounds. Though she is reading it, she imbues it with much of the conversational sincerity that today we expect. Her speaking skill was ahead of its time.

I have a sneaking suspicion that she might have written this herself. Her managerial style was hands-on, so she would always have been closely involved with the preparation of her speeches; and when this came to be prepared she had time on her hands.

I’d like to think that she authored the description of New Labour at 4:37 – “rootless, empty, and artificial”. What a withering dismissal, and all in a little triad! (The trouble is that it neatly describes most of the posturing pygmies that people all parliamentary parties these days.) And what about this alliterative triad a minute later – “the bitter, brawling bully”?

There are several stumbles and losses-of-place, but this is a tendency when people read speeches – particularly if they are conscientious enough to raise their eyes regularly to their audience. That is why I liberate all my trainees from the tyranny of paper. If your memory contains a structure that is strong, simple  and clear enough you don’t lose your place and you can shoot your speech from the hip maintaining eye-contact with the audience all the time.

She is enough of a pro to massage the egos of her audience, not just for being Conservatives but for living in Plymouth. At 10:29 she begins her peroration with an extended anaphora on the word ‘Plymouth’.

She was very good at this; and it is a lesson for us, when we embrace new fashions for things like Public Speaking, to grab the best of the new but without rolling up behind us the carpet of the old.